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Distance Learning Tips for Children With Autism

Kate Miller-Wilson
Mother an son using laptop at home

Distance learning is a challenge for any family, but if you have a child on the autism spectrum, it can be even more daunting. Fortunately, these distance learning tips for children with autism will help you give your child the reassurance and routine he or she needs to succeed.

1. Set a Distance Learning Routine

Even if your distance learning program has a flexible schedule, you can set a daily routine for your student. Children on the autism spectrum benefit from routine and structure. This helps make the day predictable, and it can be calming. Use these ideas to implement your routine:

  • Set a time to start school work every day and stick to it, just like you would in a regular school setting.
  • Do different subjects in the same order each day.
  • Set the same amount of time for each subject.
  • Establish breaks that occur at predictable intervals and times.
  • End the distance learning at the same time each day.
  • Post a printed schedule near the work space for distance learning.

2. Establish a Distraction-Free Distance Learning Spot

Many kids on the autism spectrum also struggle with executive function skills, according to Autism Speaks. This can involve a tendency to get distracted and a hard time focusing. At school, the environment is carefully structured, and that structure usually includes minimal distractions. At home, this may not be the case. Create a distraction-free spot for your child to work on school. If possible, choose a spot away from pets and siblings. Your child should work in this same spot every school day for consistency. These tips can help you create the perfect distance learning spot:

  • Choose a smaller room with a desk space for your child and a place for a parent to supervise.
  • Don't allow toys, music, or other fun distractions that can get in the way of learning.
  • Give your child headphones to help him or her focus on the instruction they are receiving.
  • Have all necessary materials at hand so your child does not need to interrupt work to look for something.

3. Manage Sensory Needs During Learning

At school, many kids on the autism spectrum get help managing their sensory needs throughout the day. This help can take the form of quiet breaks, active time, sensory stimulation, and more. Your child might use special tools as well, such as fidget toys or bouncy chairs. If you aren't sure what kinds of sensory tools or breaks your child receives during the school day, take a look at his or her IEP (individualized education plan). You'll see the sensory help listed in the Accommodations section. Do your best to replicate these sensory breaks at home, knowing you will need to modify them a bit based on the equipment and facilities you have at hand.

  • A child who receives 10-minute quiet time breaks every hour at school can have these at home too.
  • If your child sits in a bouncy chair to help with a need for movement, pick up a bouncy chair for home or try a stack of pillows or similar items.
  • For kids who use fidgets at school, try to replicate these with toys you might have at home.
  • Some kids get breaks for active time, such as a walk around the halls at school. You could replace this with a walk around the outside of your home.

4. Make a Visual Schedule for Distance Learning

Transitioning from one activity to another can be a challenge for kids with autism spectrum disorders. You can make this easier by using a visual schedule to help. A visual schedule pairs an activity with an image or photograph, allowing your child to see what is happening next at a glance. This lets the student prepare for what's to come. Try these ideas for your visual schedule:

  • Take a photograph of the distance learning environment and put that next to the time school is starting.
  • Use a screenshot of any apps or programs your child uses next to the name of the associated program.
  • Add a photo of your child doing break-time activities during the scheduled breaks.
  • Place the photos or images in order and include the time and a brief description of what the child should do.
  • Have a clock handy so your child can work to stay on task.

5. Get Some Special Education Training

You know your child better than anyone, which gives you a major advantage in supervising his or her education. However, it's also good to have some additional special education training. There are several resources that can help:

  • The UC Davis MIND Institute offers a great parent training course specific to distance education. The free course includes strategies to help teach skills and ideas for positive behavior modification.
  • The Autism Research Institute has several free webinars that can help parents with the challenge of distance learning, especially during a pandemic. You'll find tips for filling the day and adding structure, ways to make virtual interactions more successful, and more.
  • The Porchlight Autism Education Series has short e-courses on a variety of topics, including how to set schedules and establish routines and ways to understand and cope with sensory challenges.
  • You can use AFFIRM Autism Modules to help you learn more about visual supports and technology-aided instruction, plus lots of other autism-related topics.

Just One More Challenge

If you have a child on the autism spectrum, distance learning provides a unique challenge. However, as a parent of a child with ASD, you have the valuable insights and experience that come from having handled many challenges over the years. This is another challenge you will face with strength and wisdom, giving your child all the strategies you can to promote his or her success.

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Distance Learning Tips for Children With Autism