8 tips for helping your child with autism learn virtually
This school year looks quite different for most kids, which will involve an adjustment period and perhaps some anxiety along the way. For children with autism, social-communication challenges will make this adjustment process more difficult. Here are a few distance learning suggestions to help with the transition and support your child’s development throughout the year.
“We are experiencing an unprecedented moment in time. There is so much unavoidable, ever-evolving change in our world right now and this uncertainty has created a heightened level of anxiety and distress in our daily lives. For children with autism, who thrive on familiarity, it has been particularly difficult. Effectively accommodating these changes while keeping children safe adds unique challenges for parents of these children,” says, Dr. Anjali Ferguson, clinical psychologist with our developmental pediatrics team. “While managing virtual learning can be a daunting task for this population, there are things you can do to help the process go a little more smoothly. Set realistic expectations for yourself and your child and give yourself some grace/patience with the process. Your child’s safety and happiness take priority despite the stressors of academic demands.”
1. Create a space dedicated to learning
Designate a specific space in the home that your child can use for learning. It should be quiet and clutter-free, with limited distractions. Organize the space in a way that works well for your child, including visual cues – such as color-coded or picture schedules – or other tools that can help them stay on track. Make sure supplies are easily-accessible so your child can grab them as needed and stay focused.
It may take them some time to make the transition that home is now their learning environment as well. If you’re able to reserve a space specifically for school work, that may help them distinguish between school mode and play mode.
2. Set a routine
Children thrive on routine. Having a predictable schedule can be calming and help with focus too – especially if they know they’re working toward a break or favorite activity. Many virtual school programs have a set schedule. If yours is flexible, try to begin and end at the same time and address subjects in the same order each day. Consistent break and lunch times are helpful in setting the pace and rhythm for the day as well.
It may be helpful to print and post a copy of the schedule in your child’s designated school space. For children with autism, visual schedules and aides may be most effective. This will allow your child the opportunity to reference the schedule when needed.
3. Include exercise and relaxation
Creating opportunities for exercise and relaxation within the daily routine can provide the break your child needs to refocus. Take a quick walk if the weather cooperates, do an online yoga session or develop a simple stretching routine to refresh the mind and body. Kids are used to recess, PE and moving between classes at school. They will likely appreciate these opportunities for movement at home too, particularly in the beginning when they’re adjusting to a new mode of learning.
4. Accommodate for sensory needs
Incorporating movement is one way to help your child manage their sensory needs during the school day. They may also benefit from a fidget toy, bouncy chair, head phones to block out distractions or other tools to meet their specific needs. It can be helpful to ask teachers what has worked for them in the past, and if they have any suggestions for replicating at home.
5. Celebrate successes
This year certainly hasn’t gone as planned, and it’s likely that the new school year will include some unexpected twists and turns. Taking a moment to celebrate the little things will boost confidence and morale, and encourage repeated positive actions. Did your child complete an assignment on time? Give them a high five! Did they stay on task this morning? Play their favorite song!
6. Be their advocate and take advantage of resources
Your family may face new and different challenges this school year than you have in the past. Reach out to your child’s teachers, review IEPs and 504 plans, and ask for accommodations that will help with distance learning.
You are the expert on your child. Don’t be afraid to ask for things that will help them, but remember there are plenty of resources to help you in this process too. The education professionals are still committed to helping your family. If you have a question related to physical or mental health, talk to your child’s pediatrician. They’ll be able to address your concerns or connect you with specialists who can help.
Look for opportunities to connect with other parents who are navigating similar situations to share ideas. Consider joining online parent support groups to learn and share what has/has not worked in this process.
7. Stay on top of their medication
Keep medications consistent with what your child typically takes during the school year. If they’ve been attending online or in-person therapy, continue with those appointments as well. They can help with behavioral concerns and anxiety. Your child’s providers may also be useful resources in navigating the challenges of virtual learning.
8. Take a break
If today isn’t going well, it’s okay to take a break and re-evaluate. Maybe your child needs some adjustments to their learning environment. Maybe their IEP or 504 plan needs to be readdressed. Or, perhaps virtual learning in the current format is not going to work for them – and that’s ok too. Encourage them to do what they can and then reach out to your school and health care resources to discuss the best plan moving forward.
Parenting is a big job – parenting and managing school during a pandemic is a monumental one! Our pediatricians; occupational, physical and speech therapists; psychologists, psychiatrists and Cameron K. Gallagher Mental Health Resource Center; and all of our specialists are here and ready to help.