Texas Tech University

Are You Homeschooling a Child with Autism?

Amanda Castro-Crist

April 8, 2020

Christy Chapman is a board-certified behavior analyst and researcher at the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, millions of families are adapting to a new normal in which parents and guardians are working from home while also caring for and teaching children who are now learning from home. When schools will reopen is still an unanswered question, and parents and guardians have shared countless posts on social media about their progress in their modified roles, detailing their fears and frustrations alongside their triumphs and accomplishments.

Among these families are those with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March, about 1 in 54 children has been identified with ASD, an increase from the previous estimate of 1 in 59. For these children, adapting to life during a pandemic can come with additional stress or obstacles.

Christy Chapman
Christy Chapman

Christy Chapman, Ph.D., is a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), a licensed behavior analyst and a licensed specialist in school psychology. She arrived at Texas Tech University in June 2019 and serves as a BCBA for the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research and its Mobile Outreach Clinic for Autism (MOCA). She also serves as an adjunct professor for the school psychology program in the College of Education. Before her time at Texas Tech, Chapman was an autism specialist and school psychologist for the Lubbock Independent School District.

Her research focuses on several areas, including co-occurring ASD and anxiety and rural and telehealth service delivery, which she assists with through the MOCA. Chapman shares tips to help parents, guardians and children with ASD navigate distance learning and homeschooling during a pandemic.

What are some of the biggest obstacles/hurdles students and their families may face when transitioning to virtual learning at home? How can they resolve these?
One of the biggest challenges is the drastic change in routine. Families and schools spend a lot of time focusing on routine with students with autism, as this tends to put them in their comfort zone. Individuals with autism tend to work best when things are familiar and routine. The sudden upheaval of their lives in almost every way is going to be tough for many families.

While the old routine has gone away, it is going to be important for families to quickly establish a new routine, or "the new normal," for their households. That includes creating and sticking to a schedule for the day, differentiating "work time" from "play or leisure time" and going to bed/waking up on time as they would during the typical school week. The more routine things are, the easier it will be on children and parents.

Some students will be at home with other family members who also will be studying or working from home. What types of expectations should family members have for each other?
Respect the space of others. If possible, make separate work areas for family members so others are not disturbed. Wear headphones for videos and virtual meetings, and keep everyone on a similar schedule as much as possible. It will be easier if everyone takes a break at the same time versus some children working while others are playing.

Many people have talked about the importance of creating a dedicated workspace for remote learning. What should a space like this include?
It really depends on what makes the individual comfortable. A designated workspace that is free of clutter that contains all necessary materials with minimal distractors is typically best. For instance, do not put a preferred toy or the iPad on the desk while the student is working, which may lead to distraction or temptation to get off-task.

Students typically spend about eight hours at school. Should they be expected to do the same when learning from home?
While students are at school approximately eight hours per day, we have to remember that some of that time is spent in transition between classes, lunch, recess and physical education, and other activities like music/band, athletics and other electives. Actual core classes only make up about half of the day, so we cannot expect our kids to sit and do assignments for eight hours at home. A few hours of work per day with plenty of breaks for movement in between should be enough to cover course material. Remember to get in some outdoor time, listen to music and do something creative during the day as you would do in the regular school environment.

How important is it to establish a daily schedule that incorporates these other activities?
It's very important! It is hard for anyone to sit and focus on academic tasks for hours on end. Opportunities for movement, quiet time and preferred activities help to break up the day. It helps the student to be motivated to keep going with academic tasks when they know a break is coming.

How important is it for parents to include children in the planning of their day and the spaces they will use?
It is very important to include children in the planning process. Children should be active participants in setting up their areas and planning their days in order to ensure buy-in from them. If they are not comfortable in an area, it will be harder for them to concentrate and to learn, so definitely get their input.

Some parents worry they are not familiar enough with some of the subjects their children will be learning or that they have the skills to effectively teach their child. Do you have any advice on resources they can access or how they can support their children in other ways?
I would encourage parents to reach out to their child's teacher for support. Teachers in our area have done an excellent job supporting students in this new virtual environment, and most are readily available to meet with parents and students to provide support. Schools also have specialists available for specific content areas for support, as well as school counselors available in the event that mental health needs arise.

How can parents help students stay healthy (physically, emotionally and mentally) during this time?
Limit news media to no more than an hour per day (this goes for parents, too!). Watching the news is important to stay updated, but too much negative information can lead to increased anxiety, and potentially depression, in adults and children, so be mindful of what you are taking in.

Get plenty of fresh air by playing outside, taking walks or even setting up a work area outside on nice weather days. Cook and eat healthy meals and snacks as a family. Play fetch with pets in the yard, plant a garden, paint the fence ... get creative! Set up virtual hangouts with friends as well. We can be "physically distant" without being "socially distant." Talking with friends and family virtually is important for kids and for adults during this time.

Are there any other things parents should be aware of during this transition/period?

Don't forget to take care of yourself. Give yourself a break. You are doing the best that you can. You were already a superhero trying to balance work, family, school and all of the other things that occur in our daily lives. Now you are trying to do it all by yourself at home. It is important to know you do not have to do it all alone! Ask teachers and school staff for help, call a friend or family member for support, and be sure to contact someone if you feel like this is just too overwhelming.

There are counseling/mental health services available to help you get through this.

Lastly, some parents have expressed fears about their child not accomplishing as much as they would in a classroom setting or that their children will be behind (academically or developmentally) once everyone is able to return to school. What would you say to them?
Remember that this is temporary. We have already made it through the majority of the school year, and even for children who struggle with online learning, this period of learning through a different format is not going to be detrimental to their learning.

Reach out to teachers and other school staff for support, and remember that there is more to learning than just academics. Now would be a great time to work with your children on life skills at home such as making beds, doing laundry and dishes, cooking, cleaning, taking care of pets and other skills that you may have had less time for previously.

Enjoy this time with your children, and take the opportunity to reconnect by reading books and playing games together, watch a movie, have a family cookout and go camping in the backyard.