Five ways parents can advocate for their child with autism in virtual learning

By Dr. Peter Faustino, Psy.D., and Dr. Kari Oyen, Ph.D. July 29, 2020

Dr. Faustino is a school psychologist in New York. Dr. Oyen is assistant professor of school psychology at the University of South Dakota. 

When coronavirus shut school building doors across the globe, families with students of special needs, including many children with autism, were left with the question, “What now?”  

The pandemic left little time to process and make educational plans that met the needs of students with individualized education programs (IEPs), as is typically done through annual reviews, program reviews, quarterly progress reports, updated assessments or informal discussions during school events.  

While re-opening plans are still uncertain for many families in different regions in the U.S., remote, online learning (also called distance learning) may be a substantial part of the educational framework for this upcoming school year. 

Here are five ways for parents to be heard: 

  1. Review your state education department’s re-opening plan. Most (if not all) state re-opening plans have included a section to address Special Education. While these plans will not contain detailed directives for school communities, they will contain language that offers schools some flexibility with regard to certain groups of students. For example, New York’s state guidance says, “Schools and school districts should consider in-person services a priority for high-needs students and preschool students with disabilities whenever possible and consider contingency plans developed by the CPSE/CSE to address remote learning needs in the event of intermittent or extended school closures.” These guidance documents may shed light on the options and flexibility that parents may be able to request from schools for their children’s learning needs as we navigate these unprecedented times.  

  2. Get involved with the committees that are planning for re-entry. The federal education department has strongly encouraged parent and student voices in the re-opening process. Most schools are conducting surveys, where the voices of parents of children with special needs are critical. If you missed any of these opportunities, be sure to craft an email and share it with district leaders so they can better understand your child’s unique needs and how their planning can mitigate and reduce stress on your family. Be sure to communicate your needs and possible solutions to decision-makers. These decision-makers are most often the school and school district administrators and the local school board. Be sure to communicate to all parties who are at the table making educational decisions for children in your community. 

  3. Include and maximize “Parent Training” on your child’s IEP. Most states are not considering virtual services a “change of placement,” especially in cases where all students are home engaged in distance learning. However, school closures taught us that the lines between home and school are blurred. During the pandemic, the four walls of a school building do not dictate the provision of services. It takes a village to make this work and when the team is not able to be physically at your home with you, there may need to be some creative problem solving on how to provide services at a distance. In speaking with parents and professionals, consultation time became essential. Teachers, School Psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, and Physical Therapists were called upon to problem-solve home behaviors, discuss daily schedules, support instruction, help develop assessments to measure progress and find creative ways to prevent regression. Be sure to incorporate parent training on the IEP to ensure that services can continue, even while your child is at home with you!  

  4. Learn the new e-learning vocabulary. Asynchronous vs. Synchronous, Flipped Classroom, Blended Learning… While the closures in March came as a surprise and many were in crisis mode to address physical safety, financial security and finding basic necessities, schools are now heavily engaged in a reflective process to improve distance learning this fall. This includes reviewing the research and literature on e-learning that existed prior to the pandemic. The school terms used frequently are:

    • asynchronous learning: anytime learning, where the work can be done anytime in advance of a due date  

    • synchronous learning: real-time learning, generally on a live video platform and sometimes including an attendance requirement 

    • flipped classroom: students watch recorded lectures for homework and complete their assignments, labs and tests in class  

    • blended learning: combines online educational materials and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods 

In planning for the fall, speak with your special education team about the right fit for your student. Keep in mind that students may not be able to regulate their “screen-time” and setting limits is healthy. Consider that multiple, shorter segments throughout the day and week may be better for your child’s attention and learning. 

  1. Listen to your child and conduct a self-assessment compared to the school plan. Think about how your child learns best. If there are glaring discrepancies, review the IEP with your school team. You can request a meeting to revisit your child’s IEP anytime during the school year. Remember that an IEP is a contract between you and the school that outlines the strengths, needs, services, accommodations and modifications that help your child access the general education curriculum and classroom.  
    During the pandemic we are re-conceptualizing the classroom. What new challenges have arisen? What new strengths have you discovered? Do you need to incorporate some skills that help with safety? Mask-wearing? Social distancing? Handwashing? These times are new for all of us and can be quite confusing and scary for children with ASD. By intentionally addressing these concerns in a direct way with your school team, you can help ensure that your child and the staff that support them are safe in any environment.  

It is important to note that this time is a significant change for all of us. It is important to define, acknowledge and validate those losses and disappointments (big and small) for your child (and for you!). Empower your child to identify the choices that they have, express their wishes the best they can and participate in things they can control and change.  

If or when virtual learning becomes part of your day, be sure to set up routines and rituals in a distance learning environment. Have time during the day for school-based activities as well as time for home-based activities, including free play. Encourage your child to use an exploratory mindset where they think about the possibilities of remote instruction instead of all of the barriers. Be sure to encourage your child that if something is “hard” or doesn’t go how they expect, and they have not mastered it “yet,” they can still think creatively and come up with alternative plans. For some children, a distance learning format may be a very positive experience, so encourage them to consider the possible benefits of remote instruction.  

Most importantly, be sure to create connections for both you and your child as you navigate these uncharted waters. Many parents and their children are experiencing the same types of questions, challenges and opportunities. Take the time to connect with others – and support connections for your child - to share the blessings as well as the challenges of trying to teach and learn amid a pandemic.  

It takes a village to raise a child, and although we may be at a distance, this adage continues to hold true. Lean on the professionals and educators available to you to creatively help meet your child’s learning needs. 

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