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How Education Leaders Can Support Students with Autism During School Closures

By Dr. Aleksandra Hollingshead | May 10th, 2020

Aleksandra Hollingshead
Aleksandra Hollingshead is an associate dean for accreditation and inclusion and an associate professor of special education at the University of Idaho. She is a former classroom teacher of students with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Hollingshead was born and raised in Poland, and since 2019, she has been serving on the REL Northwest Governing Board.

For all students, navigating the disruptions caused by COVID-19 can be challenging and stressful. But for students with autism—who rely on routines, structure, and a stable environment—it can be especially difficult.

This developmental disability affects 1 in 54 children in the United States; today, most school and district administrators are likely supporting at least one student with autism.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this work involves thinking about legal obligations, including the goals and objectives outlined in a student's individualized education program (IEP) and related services, such as occupational therapy or speech therapy.

However, the biggest challenge now is determining how to support the parents or caregivers of students with autism, who are acting as their child's special education teacher (often with little to no preparation and professional training) while trying to do their own job or deal with the stress of having been laid off or furloughed.

Here are three ways school and district administrators can support the families of students with autism.

Check in, Encourage, and Empower

It may seem like a relatively small gesture, but simply checking in can have a big impact. Asking a parent or guardian how they are coping, letting them vent, or even giving them an opportunity to cry lets them know they are not alone and that you are there to support them.

It is also important to encourage families to give themselves some grace and recognize that they are only human. In a similar vein, you can empower parents and guardians by assuring them they are doing the best they can during an unprecedented and incredibly stressful time.

Help Maintain Clear Rules, Expectations, and Routines

As mentioned earlier, children with autism will struggle in an unstructured environment. Consequently, school and district leaders should help families foster stability—and to the extent possible, provide the structures their child was receiving in the classroom setting.

For example, parents and caregivers can create a visual schedule, develop a daily routine, and/or make checklists. They can also establish clear rules and expectations for behavior to set their children up for success.

Determine Manageable Goals and Adjust Assignments Accordingly

Although it is important that all students attend to their schoolwork as assigned, online learning might be more challenging for some students. For students with autism, education leaders should encourage families to focus on feasibility and flexibility.

Put another way, parents and caregivers should first establish what is achievable for their child, given the time frame and other factors. After that, they should determine what is essential for them to learn, set goals accordingly, and recognize that “no size fits all” in terms of how those goals are met.

For more resources and research-based strategies on supporting students with autism and their families during this time, education leaders can check out the following organizations: