Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder During COVID-19

Q&A with Sarah Smith of the Illinois Autism Partnership

The pandemic is challenging for everyone, but it’s particularly difficult for students with disabilities. We spoke with our own Sarah Smith, M.Ed., Manager of Training for the Illinois Autism Partnership (IAP), about the challenges facing students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families, how to help support remote learning, and mask-wearing. We also include a lot of great resources to support pandemic safety behaviors and remote learning at the bottom of this post, including social stories, songs, and a virtual classroom.

How do you think COVID is affecting students with autism?

First, the pandemic has brought about an enormous amount of change. Change is hard for kids with autism. Everything is different right now. Different schedules. Different environments. Different feelings. Different rules and sometimes, teachers. For children with autism, these changes can be especially stressful. Parents and caregivers need to remember to have patience with their children and with themselves. 

Second, remote learning is a huge challenge. Some kids are going to do well if the situation is very structured, but I would say that the majority of kids with autism really struggle with remote learning. Many students with autism usually receive one-to-one support or specialized instruction that is very difficult to provide in a virtual setting. They don’t have the supports they’re used to. Understandably, many parents have to work so they can’t support schooling all day long. It’s definitely a struggle. This is why many districts across the country are prioritizing students with special needs for in-person schooling whenever it is safe to do so. 

Research shows that the physical environment plays a significant role in student engagement and achievement, which is why we spend a lot of time prepping school classrooms and buildings for student learning.

How can parents help support the remote learning of their children with autism?

One of the biggest things that IAP focuses on is the physical environment. Research shows that the physical environment plays a significant role in student engagement and achievement, which is why we spend a lot of time prepping school classrooms and buildings for student learning. Now, kids are at home, but we still need to place an emphasis on the learning environment. Obviously, in a global pandemic, there’s some challenges to be had but, we try to help parents set up a clear work area at home with visual supports and really clear expectations. That’s how our kids are going to be at their best for learning. 

Here are some things to remember when setting up a learning space at home: 

  • Determine a specific, clutter-free space in the home that can be used for remote learning.
  • Develop visual schedules to help your child know what comes next. 
  • Create visual supports to remind your child of expected behaviors (safe hands, quiet mouth, how to log in, etc.) 
  • Develop a simple reinforcement system that allows your child to earn rewards based on work completion and appropriate behaviors. 
  • Be sure to incorporate regular breaks into the day, so that your child has sensory and movement opportunities in between work sessions. 

I also tell parents to try to implement as much that is familiar as possible. Follow a consistent schedule, use consistent language, provide consistent supports. I find that some well-meaning parents and teachers are making things more complicated than they need to be and this can be overwhelming for kids. Just using a token board or reward system is going to be useful or using the same schedule that the kids use at school. Consistency, familiarity, and predictability is key. Most teachers would be happy to share resources with families – so asking for the schedule icons or token board that the child uses at school can be very helpful!

IAP has released a collection of social stories to help young people with autism understand the pandemic, wearing a mask, social distancing, etc. How did this come about?

When the pandemic hit, our families and kids were struggling and in need. We heard a lot of concerns and anxieties. Everyone was at home and trying to figure out how to best support one another. At IAP, we were doing the same. We asked ourselves how we could best use our expertise to potentially help a lot of people during a really difficult time. That’s how our idea for social stories came about. We want to help young people with ASD  better understand the changes that are happening and ease the anxieties around them.

One anxiety in the autism community has been around masks. What advice would you offer as an expert?

We understand those concerns, but we also encourage parents and families to reconsider before asking for mask exemptions unless their child has a documented medical reason beyond an autism diagnosis. We are of the mindset that every child can learn new behaviors. A child who has sensory needs or has autism can wear a mask. Just like any other behavior, like wearing a seat belt in the car, mask wearing is learned. If we show a desire to teach them and message that they can do it, they always can. Evidence-based tools like power cards and social stories can help support that learning. Using your child’s favorite character to encourage mask wearing can go a long way. Ultimately, masks create safer environments and help protect all of us from COVID-19, so the more we can do to encourage that behavior, the better. 

What does IAP do? 

IAP builds the capacity of school districts throughout Illinois so they can provide effective programming for students with an autism spectrum disorder. IAP’s individualized coaching, consulting, and training programs offer school districts a wide range of options. 

Can school districts who need support reach out to you now?

Yes, they can email us at IAP@eastersealschicago.org.

Resources for Students with ASD

Visual Supports 

  • COVID-19 Visual Supports Toolkit  
    • Social Distancing Reminders
    • Remote Instruction
    • Hand-Washing Supports
    • Hand Sanitizer Station
    • Area Off-Limits 
    • Sanitized/Needs Sanitized 
    • Mask On/Mask Off 
    • Additional Resources 

Social Stories 

Social Story Song 

Mask-Wearing 

IAP Virtual Classroom

Published by Easterseals Serving Chicagoland and Greater Rockford

Easterseals serving Chicagoland and Greater Rockford serves nearly 30,000 clients annually and proudly employs 600+ dedicated professionals in programs across the Chicagoland and Rockford regions of Illinois. Established in 1936, we support children, individuals with disabilities, and their families through two pillars of work: Comprehensive Autism and Behavioral Services and Early Learning and Developmental Services

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