Virtual classes especially hard for 22,500 students with autism

Taylor Haelterman and Luke Sloan
Capital News Service
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Lansing — The switch to virtual classes, meetings and social activities during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for any student, but imagine not understanding the reason for making the change.

That’s what students with autism cope with every day.

“It’s hard for people with autism to spin on a dime, or make a change,” said Kathy Williams, whose daughter is a Clawson Public School student with autism. “It’s more of pulling a rug out from under them. They’re so used to structure and schedules.”

That makes it difficult to explain social distancing, why they can’t go to their aunt’s or grandma’s or why they can’t hug their friends, she said.

Those are the kinds of challenges facing nearly 22,500 Michigan pre-K through 12th​ grade students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to the state Department of Education. They are among 1.5 million students enrolled in Michigan public schools.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior, according to the National Institutes of Health. The severity and symptoms vary, but people who have it can have difficulty communicating and functioning in school and work life.

Matthew T. Brodhead is an assistant professor at Michigan State University.

Structure is helpful for people with autism, so losing the routine that school provides is worrying, said Matthew Brodhead, an assistant professor in the Michigan State University Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education.

“School provided structure and predictability,” Brodhead said. “And for some kids, that was the only structure that they had in their life, and now that is gone too.”

And having no example of how to teach students with autism online only adds to the difficulty.

“Before this, educators or researchers operated under the assumption that they will always be able to have access to school,” Brodhead said. “Therefore, much of our work on understanding how to be effective at teaching has centered around that environment. Lacking, in one major way, was a body of research to inform on how to do” online school.

The research gap makes it challenging to make accommodations for students with autism. Accommodations can range from extra time to take tests to having a paraprofessional with the student at all times.

Veronica Hartley has difficulty working online with her students with autism spectrum disorder at the Clawson School District. It’s especially tough with non-verbal students who usually receive visual cues in person.

“Our students depend on the assistance,” said Hartley, a paraprofessional who assists teachers and their middle school students. “They need the reinforcement of the staff and the teachers to push them through a little more. It’s harder to do that online than it is in person.”

Students may also miss parts of their Individualized Education Programs, which spell out accommodations a school is required to make for them.

“We know that some of the (Individual Education Program) services aren’t being met because they can’t be, because you can’t be with the kid physically,” said Iron Mountain resident Sally Beauchamp, a parent mentor for the Upper Peninsula with the Michigan Alliance for Families. “If you’re in (occupational therapy) and your kid gets it twice a week, it’s really hard to do occupational therapy via computer.”

The organization assists caregivers of children with disabilities improve their child’s education. Families are connected to a regional parent mentor who assists in navigating the education system and finding help.

Families have adapted educational programs to their homes, forming a new routine for both school and social activities.

Williams, whose daughter Callan is taking an extra year at Clawson High School, said, “In terms of lessons on cooking, or home-required skills, we’re able to put them into action right away — whether it’s folding towels or putting dishes away.

“We’re also creating our own little personal cookbook. It’s allowing us to do a little more with the curriculum,” Williams said. “We created pen pals — my daughter has a host of kids who she’s been pen pals with.”

Callan also enjoys friends, who frequently come over to enjoy a book and eat lunch together on opposite sides of a gate outside the family’s house.

“Weather is changing that somewhat now,” Williams said. “When the weather got cooler, we started doing hot chocolate over the gate.”

Adapting to the pandemic should be individualized, she said. What works for her and her daughter isn’t transferable to every student with autism.

The daily routine is different for Anne Pancost of Clawson and her 19-year-old twin sons Nick and Joe, who attend Berkley School District. But their first reaction to the switch to online learning mirrored that of the Williams.

“Everything was abrupt and cut off,” Pancost said. “They never really got closure from school. Their regular routine was upended.”

Pancost works at a dental office two blocks from her home and walks home for lunch. Her husband works from home, but Nick and Joe have become more independent since the onset of the pandemic.

“They fold their laundry now,” she said. “They take their sheets off the bed.”

But Pancost said the decreased amount of social interaction has impeded her sons’ social development.

“Conversation was always hard for them in the first place,” Pancost said. “Last year they were getting better, and then everything shut down.”

Williams agrees that challenges are related to social interaction. Callan misses her peers, she said. “We went through a lot of sadness and tears.”

MSU’s Brodhead said that, in theory, online learning can be effective if a teacher is set up in a system designed and executed well to meet the student’s individual needs. But that isn’t the case for everyone.

He said he fears students in lower income and minority communities will experience more negative effects from the change.

“My professional worry is that the learning is not going to be as much as we would expect it if things were normal,” he said. “Are they going to be able to get caught up? I’m afraid that the answer is closer to the probability of no versus yes.”

Schools already struggle to help students who fall behind. By adding on the deficits and trauma from the pandemic, Brodhead says they may not have the time and money to meet everyone’s needs.

Solving these problems starts with research on online education, he said. Then policymakers need to follow the data to inform the decisions they make.

“When this is all over, I think we’re going to see some form of online instruction prevailing more than it has,” Brodhead said. “Regardless of how these kids are accessing their education, they’re still entitled to a free and appropriate public education. One that is effective and individually tailored to be able to meet their needs.”

Caregivers of people with autism in Michigan who need support can visit the ​Spartan Caregiver Support website​, a telehealth service directed by Brodhead. The program started during the pandemic to help caregivers address social or behavioral challenges. Or those looking for assistance can find their regional Parent Mentor on the ​Michigan Alliance for Families website

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