Distance Learning: Tips for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder


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Many parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other special needs are currently navigating the distance learning process in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This process can be particularly stressful for families, but there are several tips that parents may want to consider to help make distance learning more manageable.  

  1. Schedule an ARD (Admission Review Dismissal) meeting with your child's school in order to determine the most appropriate modality of distance learning while schools are not seeing students for in-person education. Distance learning can involve online instruction, often called synchronous instruction (real-time learning) or asynchronous instruction (independent learning on own schedule), blended or hybrid instruction (a combination of online and in-person instruction), and offline instruction (learning activities that don’t require a computer or internet access). Consider what options are available and discuss with your child’s ARD committee what would be the most appropriate to achieve learning objectives.  


  1. Communicate with your child's teacher. The transition to distance learning is challenging for everyone involved. Therefore, it's important to be in daily communication with your child's teacher about what is working and what is not working. As this is a new experience and a work in progress, consider providing your child's teacher with feedback and requesting changes as needed. This is also a great opportunity to find out what worked well last year when your child attended school in person. 


  1. Help children distinguish school days from weekend days. Many parents find the most success when they have their child get ready for the day as if they are going to school in person, even if school is taking place at home. This means that children should engage in a typical school day routine such as waking up at a specific time each day, changing out of their pajamas and into school clothes, brushing their teeth, and eating breakfast before the day starts. Children should also have a consistent bedtime routine each night. They may not be physically attending school in person, but the day will run smoother if children have the expectation that their school days are different from their weekend days. The Marcus Autism Center has an excellent guide that shows families how to establish daily routines.  

  1. Prepare the learning environment at home. For children to be successful, they need a designated work or learning space at home where all school activities can take place with minimal distraction. As part of this space, all materials necessary for school should be readily available such as a device to engage in virtual learning, WiFi, paper, pens/pencils, crayons/markers, etc. If the teacher has not done so already, you may need to inquire about the specific materials necessary for each daily lesson so that you can prepare the environment ahead of time. For older children, you may need to share a list of materials that the child needs to collect around the house in preparation for the lesson. Provide the child with a beverage and/or snack as needed.  


  1. Use visual and auditory supports: Many children benefit from visual and auditory supports including visual schedules, to-do lists, First-Then boards, and timers. Some children benefit from seeing pictures that outline their entire day or even a specific activity. Others may need a more simplified format that shows them first doing their work, then taking a break. The websites Autism Speaks and Do 2 Learn provide excellent resources to create your own visual supports.   


  1. Use rewards appropriately and effectively. Identify what your child is motivated by and consider offering rewards based on the amount of time you want them to engage in the school task/activity or specific behaviors expected during school time. For instance, if your child is only able to stay seated for about 12 minutes, you may want to offer your child a reward every 10 minutes they remain seated. Once they have success with this amount of time, you may want to reward them every 15 minutes they remain seated. The goal is to meet your child where they are, have realistic expectations and then gradually increase the amount of time that your child can stay seated for a lesson before receiving a reward.  


  1. Provide high frequency positive attention for appropriate behavior. While your child is engaged in schoolwork, provide frequent positive attention by saying, "I like how you are sitting so nicely" or "Good job holding your pencil." It may seem repetitive as you will likely be praising your child for many of the same behaviors over and over. However, if you see something that you like they are doing and want to continue to see them do it, make sure to praise them! 


  1. Build in planned breaks. Prior to observing your child engage in challenging behaviors in response to feeling restless, bored or challenged by a task, offer them some sort of brief movement break away from the schoolwork area. Make sure to let your child know that the break has an end time, such as 5 minutes, and feel free to use a timer to signal how much time they have left and when it's time to return to school work. Consider avoiding activities, such as screen time and going outside, which are activities that may be difficult to transition away from. 


  1. If after you have implemented these strategies and the distance learning approach currently in use still does not seem to be appropriate for your child, consider having a discussion with your child's teacher and/or ARD team. For some students, depending on their age, cognitive/developmental abilities, communication abilities as well as behavioral challenges, certain distance learning modalities may not be an appropriate fit. If this is the case, it's important for families to discuss this with their child’s school to discuss different options. Specifically, some students may benefit from an offline or more hands-on teaching approach from their parents that does not involve engagement in any online instruction whatsoever. Therefore, they may benefit from ideas of how parents can incorporate learning objectives into the child's daily routine, rather than a scheduled online instruction session. For instance, if the child is working on counting, perhaps they can work on counting toys or counting food items during mealtimes. For other children, working on more adaptive skills like toileting or putting laundry away or cooking might be more appropriate.  


  1. Parents are also encouraged to take planned breaks for themselves that may or may not involve their children. For instance, it might involve taking a walk outside with your child, but it also may involve going into another room and phoning a friend or listening to music. Taking time for self-care, even if they are brief scheduled moments during the day, is critical for everyone’s mental health.