Home Schooling Autistic Students During Covid-19
The viral outbreak of 2020 has brought profound changes to our daily lives, including the almost universal lockdown of schools, forcing most parents to homeschool their children. Even if some schools do reopen this coming fall, many others will not. Additionally, many parents will likely continue to homeschool their children to avoid the virus’s continuing spread, school reopening or not.
A challenge for even parents of neurotypical (NT) children, homeschooling can be a greater challenge for parents with children on the autism spectrum. Add to that the possible emotional havoc being wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, and parents of these children have plenty to deal with. It’s our hope, then, that the following practical methods and techniques can help you and your autistic child adjust and thrive in this new and challenging situation.
When homeschooling, you first need to establish your child’s daily routine. Here are a few basic suggestions you can follow:
Establish a daily routine
You can help your autistic child adjust to the new normal and continue to learn by establishing a simple daily schedule. This routine need not be adhered to slavishly, but it can help your student stay on task and will help decrease any anxiety they may be feeling due to this new situation. At the same time, you are free to tailor your child’s school schedule to their needs and learning style. For instance, if your child works better in the morning, have them study the more difficult concepts or subjects then, saving easier subjects for later in the day.
Write down the routine—make it visual
The best way to communicate this routine is to write it down— preferably on something like a whiteboard—where your child can see it and where it will remind them of their schedule and enable them to be prepared for what’s coming next.
Follow the routine, but be flexible.
You should follow this routine so your child’s day is orderly and predictable, but remember to be flexible and to change the schedule as needed. For instance, on days when your child is having trouble concentrating, you may want to adjust your schedule slightly.
Remember to take breaks throughout the day
As a follow-on to tip #3, remember to have your child take brain and body (i.e., sensory) breaks throughout the day. Children on the spectrum in particular need time to process information and they need sensory breaks. Plus, they will learn better if you don’t attempt to exceed their attention span or stay on a subject longer than they are able to concentrate. Remember, even though most students are in school for six to seven hours a day, the bulk of their learning happens for only 1.5 to 2 hours. Many school systems, such as those in Finland and Norway, have their students engage in strenuous learning for shorter periods of times while interspersing those periods with ample physical activity in order to maximize their students’ retention.
In most cases, your local school system and teacher will provide classwork assignments for your student to complete, but this doesn’t mean you can’t add to your child’s education. The following tips you can help you as you teach your child.
Leverage their special abilities and interests
When you teach your child, remember to leverage their unique abilities and strengths. In other words, no matter what the subject, you can use your student’s current avid interest as a way to demonstrate the principle or methods being taught. For instance, if your student was interested in railroads, you could frame math questions around trains, their size, or you could have your student calculate a train’s arrival times, etc. Alternatively, you could teach a social studies lesson using trains or railroads as a connecting point to tie the lesson together by discussing the part that railroads played in the industrial revolution, for instance. No matter what your student’s interest is, you can build lessons around that interest or use that interest as an example or platform from which to tech new concepts.
Use sensory support when teaching them, (including props, ideas, and topics of interest)
In a similar way as with the previous suggestion, when you teach your autistic student, make sure to engage all of their senses, by using props, sounds, and even smells to help you illustrate a concept. The more you utilize all of their senses, the better they will learn.
Despite the pandemic, take small field trips to teach and dramatize otherwise abstract concepts.
Even though there’s a pandemic and you need to take precautions, there are many places you can visit for small field trips to help illustrate concepts and teach lessons. Parents naturally worry that their often socially distant child will become more isolated by homeschooling, but when you are able to take small field trips, you expose your child to the outside world and to others (while remaining socially distanced of course). For instance, you could visit a local geographic site or go going rock or fossil hunting to illustrate earth science concepts. You could visit a local place of interest to teach a social studies or history lesson, or visit a bank or shopping area to illustrate concepts relating to commerce or consumer mathematics. You could even visit a construction site—remaining at a safe distance of course—to illustrate how buildings are built and how construction requires many steps in its process. The possibilities are endless. A quick Internet search can yield many suggestions from other parents and educators. Again, the more concrete the lesson, the more likely its concept will be understood and remembered.
Use media to help you teach
Between the Internet, Netflix, on-demand channels (especially PBS), and YouTube, many very well-constructed documentaries, television programs, and movies exist that you can use as teaching aids. From educational programs that teach anything from Algebra to French, to historical dramas that can help illustrate historic periods and events, there is plenty to choose from. Media is often an autistic child’s preferred method of being instructed, and many will sit transfixed hours at a time as they engage in this immersive mode of learning. There are also many online resources, like Khan Academy, where students can learn anything from basic English grammar to advanced calculus.
A Few Last Thoughts
If you have good guidance, homeschooling can become a beneficial, if not preferable, way to educate them, and your child can even come to prefer it to regular school. The extra time you will spend with your child can strengthen your bond with them, and you will better understand their unique learning style and learning needs. Of course, teaching is hard work, but the above suggestions and tips can help you make the best of this new situation as you help your child continue to learn, grow, and develop.