Learning disruptions have been an unfortunate but all-too-frequent sight during the pandemic. But not every student felt those effects evenly as schools shifted between remote and in-person options.
Even under typical circumstances, learners with autism or other neurological differences are often more sensitive to changes in their environments. So given the lingering uncertainties about COVID-19’s impact on schooling this fall—and the trajectory of the fast-spreading delta variant—perhaps it’s no surprise that many families with neurodivergent children are opting to continue with remote learning.
“We’ve had about 50 families stay online. And with that request, it prompted us to officially apply for our online schools here in the state of Arizona,” says Dana Van Deinse, director of partnership and online programming at Arizona Autism Charter Schools, which serves more than 400 students. “So really, it came about from demand.”
Arizona Autism was founded in 2014 but is only now kickstarting long-term online offerings for K-8 and high school. It’s the first autism-focused charter school in the state and it serves students with a wide array of needs. As a public charter, there’s no tuition, and administrators are used to families moving to the state in order to attend. Already, Van Deinse says, one family has moved just so that their child could enroll online. (It’s also not the only school seeing increasing interest among some families to keep their neurodivergent children remote.)
Learning in a Familiar Setting
One of the most critical elements to success for any young learner is a strong teacher-student relationship, says Jan Blacher, professor of education and director of the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center at the University of California, Riverside. Kids with more trusting student-teacher relationships do better academically, have more friends and are less likely to drop out of school, she says. But those relationships can be especially difficult for students with autism, who sometimes take longer to understand the emotional responses of peers and adults.
Online schooling can make socializing difficult, but in-person learning, especially with some COVID-19 precautions still in place, presents its own challenges. Masks and physical distancing in the classroom, for example, can prevent both students and teachers from understanding each other’s expressions and emotional states, Blacher notes.
And families seem to be taking note of those complications. In a survey of more than 3,000 families Blacher and her colleagues conducted with support from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, about 40 percent of parents who have children with autism did not feel comfortable sending them back to school in-person this fall.
Educators and researchers alike have also noticed that the virtual classroom provides some unexpected benefits. Some students prefer a familiar setting—especially if their academic work requires tasks they’re less comfortable with. Sean Arnold, a special educator and STEM coach for District 75 in New York City, noticed a significant change when his students were working from home.
“I had students who were selectively mute, and had never spoken to their peers in school in person. But because they had a [familiar] space… they literally spoke to their classmates for the first time only in remote learning. And I think that’s meaningful,” says Arnold, whose district caters specifically to neurodivergent students.
Although he hasn’t analyzed data on his students, he has noticed a significant trend: Nearly all of the remote students with whom he works scored better on assessments and showed more growth than their in-person classmates.
Stephen Shore, professor of education and health sciences at Adelphi University, reiterated the importance of giving neurodivergent students more control over their learning environments.
“Autistic people might find it sensorially overloading to go to a physical location that has maybe too much noise or some kind of lighting that’s problematic, such as fluorescent lights, recessed lighting fixtures, even just temperature control.”
Shore, who has autism himself, remembered trying to work in a classroom where the heat was turned up especially high during the winter. That discomfort was a persistent distraction—and one some school leaders might not immediately consider, he says.
Flexibility is also key for students whose daily learning challenges can be unpredictable. Van Deinse, at Arizona Autism Charter Schools, says home learning can give families necessary flexibility to respond to their student’s needs proactively.
“When they were bringing their child to a school, and sometimes maybe they didn’t have a good night’s rest or something triggered some behavior and they didn’t want to go to school, [the family] now saw the benefits of having their child at home,” she says.
Pros and Cons
For special education historians, there’s a cyclical feeling to the current moment for families with neurodivergent children. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act guaranteed a “free, appropriate public education” to all students regardless of ability and allowed thousands of children to enter schools for the first time. As Blacher points out, now, many families with neurodiverse students are asking to keep their children at home.
On the other hand, virtual learning isn’t the best option for all neurodivergent students, just as it isn’t always suitable for neurotypical ones. Remote learning often can require significant support work from a student’s family, Blacher says, and can also prevent some learners from developing social skills with their classmates or meeting other objectives in their Individualized Education Plans (IEP).
“When the autistic child is sitting at home, there’s no real chance to work on social communication skills, which is usually an IEP goal. Many of these children have reported to me that they actually feel lonely, they miss their friends,” says Blacher.
And while video conferencing allows teachers and students to communicate without covering their expressions with a mask, it still makes genuine emotional connection difficult. Another option some schools are considering is trying to adapt elements of remote learning into the typical school day. Arnold notes that some administrative meetings with students and families at his school, for example, will be able to take place virtually, even for students who are otherwise enrolled in-person.
Ultimately, making sure neurodivergent students get the most out of their classes, whether online or in-person, takes active buy-in from schools—something Arnold has noticed picking up since last year.
“While in the past, I’ve gotten to see lots of educators on the front end of the spectrum adopt all these great new procedures and activities and methods in their classrooms, in the midst of this, I got to see even the teachers who were more reticent…move and change,” he says. “And that makes me hopeful.”