How to Support Students with Autism: Virtual Learning Environment

By Christa Oister

Christa Oister is a special education teacher at Commonwealth Charter Academy, a public cyber charter school in Pennsylvania.  

As a public cyber charter school teacher, I am often asked about how virtual learning environments can work for students with autism. This question has been asked even more so of late by families wondering if brick-and-mortar schools will be able to open up safely, and follow state guidelines amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. My answer is that many students, including those with autism, can benefit from a virtual learning environment, especially when taught by state-certified teachers using research-based curriculum.  

When looking into a public cyber charter school or the virtual options being offered by some school districts, I encourage parents to look for a program that provides all necessary supplies students will need to complete their schoolwork, including a computer, headphones, internet and textbooks/workbooks, etc. The program should also allow students to attend live classroom sessions or watch recordings of those sessions at a time that best suits their needs. Students who need additional processing time can watch lesson recordings, pausing as needed to complete their work.  

Students should also be provided with asynchronous lessons that are designed to be done at the student’s own pace and schedule, so that learners do not become overwhelmed. The lessons should be 508 compliant, meaning they are accessible to those with communication challenges. This compliance with federal regulations means that the technology eliminates barriers by incorporating supports like closed captioning, accessibility by screen-reading apps, clear and concise directions, and have a predictable format. Ask your school if their learning platform is 508 compliant. This flexibility allows students to make their own schedules based on what works best for them. To further support students with autism in a virtual learning environment, just like with any other learning environment, it’s important to always think about the individual needs of the student. 

In addition to the universal considerations built into lessons, students can also be provided with the specific modifications and accommodations they need to be successful. These may look similar to the in-person setting, but you should ask your school team if new ones should be included in your child’s IEP in the virtual setting. Some examples of modifications or accommodations that can be provided include: reduced work load, fewer practice questions, choices on how to answer a question, text-to-speech software for students who are not reading on grade level and speech-to-text software programs for students who struggle with fine motor skills. Modified courses are also provided for students who may need more intensive support.  

Another consideration in virtual schooling is how often will students work with a general education teacher or their special education teacher. Look for a program that values parent input and puts families first. Building this relationship will allow students to stay connected and teachers to adjust programming as needed. A virtual learning environment also allows students to work at their own pace. Students should be able to work ahead if they are able to complete lessons independently or take higher level courses if they have met the prerequisites.  

Some students with autism need extra support with social skills, so it is important those skills be taught regardless of the classroom setting. Focused instruction on flexible thinking, understanding body language and facial expressions, expected vs. unexpected behavior, thinking about others versus just yourself and how to cope with problems when they arise should still be provided as needed in a virtual classroom. Any service that a student is receiving at their current school can be provided in a virtual learning environment by licensed therapists trained for providing services in the virtual setting.  

There’s no question that changing schools or learning environments can be difficult, especially for students who struggle with unexpected change. If you are considering making the change to virtual learning, I strongly suggest looking into all available options to best meet the needs for you and your child’s need and maximize their potential for the future.  

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