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How to Help Autistic Students Navigate a Turbulent School Year

Autistic students may need additional support to cope with the changing routines and shifts between distance and in-person learning.

February 11, 2021
Student greets his teacher during distance learning session
Nataliya Piatrovich / Alamy Stock Photo

The Covid-19 pandemic has created numerous challenges for students, educators, parents, and community members. Unfortunately, these challenges could lead to increased achievement gaps in our most at-risk populations. The shift in school settings, the dependency on technology for most instructional delivery, and a multitude of social and emotional challenges could negatively impact students in a variety of ways. And the negative impact may be greater for autistic students. To reduce the impact, educators should create positive learning environments in a variety of settings to maximize instructional time.

Remote Setting

Last spring, when the pandemic forced schools to change gears mid-semester, mistakes were made and lessons learned, which provided a blueprint for now and into the future. This blueprint revealed the need for a back-to-basics approach in public education, specifically special education. When serving autistic students in a remote setting, educators should focus on the following points.

1. Relationships: Maintaining, building, and reinforcing positive relationships between you and your autistic students increases the likelihood of success for remote learning. This is your opportunity to show that you truly “know your who” and personalize communication to best meet students’ needs. For some students, this may include daily phone calls or FaceTime. For others, this may involve Google Meet sessions with you, classmates, or other school staff members. If your students are verbal, provide time during instructional sessions to share positive events, discuss nonsensitive challenges, tell jokes, and just laugh.

2. Consistency: Expect the unexpected was a common theme in 2020, but that does not give teachers permission to overlook the need for a consistent daily and weekly schedule. Autistic students often struggle with change, which makes consistency essential. Checklists should be used to further structure the environment and provide consistency. Work with the family to create a daily schedule, which should incorporate visuals as needed. Students of all abilities are already overwhelmed with a wave of information, so do your best to simplify and streamline your classwork schedule to make processing easier for autistic students.

3. Social skills: Educators should now be more confident addressing social skill gaps and the hidden curriculum. Luckily, educators now have access to social stories on numerous websites. A simple Google search provides social stories related to quarantines, health procedures, masks, and more. For students who need substantial support, visuals may yield the best results. Students with stronger communication skills may need more detailed social stories from experts such as Carol Gray, state agencies, or other sources. Parents and teachers alike should use positive reinforcements to increase expected at-home behaviors and build a growth mindset.

4. Fluid instruction: Your goal is to maximize instructional time; therefore, accept the fact that your lesson planning needs to be fluid. Autistic students may have sensory, social, or emotional challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Recognize this and do your best to provide instruction and learning opportunities that do not add stressors. Emphasize quality over quantity, provide direct instruction as needed, and consider using this time for interventions, extended learning activities, and relevant assignments.

Transition Phase

As more and more schools shift back to in-person learning, special education teachers should emphasize the need for a coordinated strategy. To bridge the gap between home and the school, the individualized education program (IEP) team can meet virtually to coordinate a strategy that provides plenty of preview and prep for the student, supports (checklists, behavior trackers, social stories, and more), walk-throughs of the school day, and a gradual transition back to the classroom. If possible, autistic students should have a designated safe space and trusted adult before transitioning back. Sensory changes, such as different noise levels or hallway traffic, need to be recognized, and adequate supports should be provided. Teachers should be in consistent contact with occupational therapists, school psychologists, speech pathologists, and the special education director throughout this phase.

In-Person Learning

Once the students return, they will depend on you to provide a positive learning environment. Consider the following areas when working with autistic students:

1. Compassion: School may be back in session, but new and old stressors are playing a major role in how the student feels, acts, and perceives their classroom experience. Students need patience and persistence from teachers to help them develop coping strategies. Teachers should create an environment that is sensory-friendly and welcoming to build back student trust.

2. Communication: If the school and/or teacher effectively communicate on a consistent basis during remote learning, relationship building will be much easier. Remember that the student’s communication may be impacted by additional social anxiety or new sensory challenges from the increase in sounds, light, or smells. Use checklists, notes, visuals, emojis, and social stories. Always communicate regularly with parents, and coordinate with all members of the IEP team to ensure proper support in all settings.

3. Curriculum: After the student has readjusted, use a diagnostic assessment to determine potential strengths and deficits. Use this data to guide instructional planning, implement academic interventions, and determine the accommodations needed to excel in the classroom setting. Increase student engagement by using relevant content. At the same time, be aware of the social and emotional needs of the student and the hidden curriculum.

4. Encouragement: A positive, growth mindset is the key to success when transitioning back to in-person learning. Celebrate all successes of each autistic student. If needed, use a forced-choice survey to determine potential rewards to reinforce specific behaviors or work toward meeting various behavioral or social goals. Consider posting a picture of a brain with examples of a growth mindset to reinforce the concept. Your students need you to radiate positivity each and every day.

The above strategies emphasize the need for a simple, streamlined approach to distance learning, transitioning back to the school setting, and in-person learning during a pandemic. Autistic students need an educator who recognizes neurological differences between students and advocates for a plan that honors their uniqueness and highlights their strengths.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to “students with autism spectrum disorder.” Edutopia’s policy is to use the term “autistic students,” in keeping with the preferences of many in the autism community. We regret the error.]

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