COVID-19 Online Learning Solutions Present Challenges For Students With Autism, ADHD

Mar 17, 2020

In response to the spread of coronavirus, schools across the nation, including the University of Nevada, Reno, are transitioning to online learning for a period of time. This adjustment can be a challenge for some students; particularly those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Cady Stanton has coached people with autism or ADHD for the past 15 years and has studied the role it plays in academic outcomes.

Zender: So when it comes to online learning, what are the challenges for people who have ADHD or autism?

Stanton: I actually think that online learning is much more difficult. Actually for most people, but in particular, for people who are autistic or have ADHD. I think we tend to think that it’s just going to be easier to get up in the morning, open our computer and go to school that way, versus getting on the bus, going to class and sitting in class. The problem is that we need structure and if we have ADHD or we have autism, we tend not to have as much of the internal structure — the internal regulation, which we typically call executive function — as someone might otherwise. So you really need those external structures, those external supports in place to help you be successful. If you’re online, you simply don’t have that. It’s going to be way easier to procrastinate. It’s going to be more difficult to stay focused and to stay on task. And it’s also going to be more difficult to organize and plan your day.

Zender: I know some people might be thinking, ‘well you know, this is something that everyone goes through.’ How is this different than what neurotypical people go through — or people who don’t have autism or ADHD?

Stanton: I think it’s important to acknowledge a couple of things. First of all, that everyone has different challenges when it comes to executive function. All people, whether you’re neurotypical or neurodiverse, will have executive function challenges. That’s universal. But people who have ADHD or who are autistic tend to have more executive function challenges, to the point where it can really interfere with their productivity, and ability to organize and set goals for themselves. They really do need external support. They also need a lot of understanding and encouragement from those around them, and to not have the challenges that they face minimized.

Zender: Are there any differences between the way people with autism or people with ADHD learn?

Stanton: Absolutely. I think many people with autism or ADHD are going to do much better if they have written instructions, versus just oral instructions. They also are going to do much better if they have a supportive person that they can ask for ideas or how to navigate things. One of the challenges of online learning is that it might be more difficult to communicate with your professor or your teacher and ask for support.

Zender: So how can teachers or professors be more inclusive to these students?

Stanton: I would say the first thing is please do not minimize what your students are going through. Please be supportive. I know that for a long time people have said, ‘Oh everyone has ADHD. That’s the condition that all six-year-old little boys have.’ And really, minimizing something that’s so profoundly challenging for some people is really harmful to them. So if a student reaches out to you and tells you that they have autism or they have ADHD, first of all, respect that it might be very challenging for them even to reach out to you, let alone to disclose something so personal and so private. Be supportive and ask them specifically, ‘how can I be helpful?’ Individuals with autism or with ADHD, their needs vary greatly. And so really as professionals [and] as professors, you want to ask them ‘what are the specific things that I can do to be of help?’

Zender: Is there anything they can do when it comes to online learning specifically?

Stanton: I would recommend being as clear as possible about what the requirements are and please do not send your students a 5,000-word email about what’s going to happen. They’re not going to read it, they’re just going to get overwhelmed and click out of it. Provide a bulleted list of the important things, and then in the email below or in the information below, provide the details.

Zender: So what would you recommend that students do, who might be facing months of online learning ahead?

Stanton: First of all, just admit to yourself [and] be honest, that this is going to be tough for you. Part of you wants to say, ‘oh, this is going to be fine,’ because we’re also thinking, ‘oh, this is great, I’m not going to have to go to class every day.’ But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we need the structure, and we know we’re going to struggle without the structure, and we know that we’re going to struggle without at least some social interaction. So the first thing we need to do is be honest with ourselves. Create as much structure in our day as possible. Make sure you go to sleep on time. It’s going to be way too easy to stay up until three in the morning if you can also just get up whenever you want to do your classes. That’s going to [turn] your life upside down really quickly. Keep as much structure in your life as possible and if you can, if you have anyone in your life that you trust, ask them to be an accountability partner for you. Anyone you can find that you can check in every day and just say, ‘this is what I’m working on for my schoolwork. It’s 10 o’clock. I’m going to work for the next two hours, and I’ll text you when I’m done.’  You’ve got to build enough external support, or you’re going to start to sink.

The University of Nevada, Reno’s Disability Resource Center sent out an email to faculty and staff shortly after this piece aired on KUNR, detailing plans for online learning to accommodate students who have disabilities.

The Disability Resource Center will stay fully operational. We remain committed to supporting all of the students that we serve as campus transitions to remote instruction. As a staff, we are requesting that all students remain proactive in self-advocacy regarding their requests for accommodations and stay in regular communication with us. As we remotely engage a fully online curriculum, keep in mind that we are here to support our entire campus community’s action plan and mission, recognizing and embracing the critical importance of diversity in preparing students for global citizenship and a commitment to a culture of excellence, inclusion, and accessibility.

As a note of disclosure, KUNR is licensed by the Nevada System of Higher Education.