Home schooling children with autism spectrum disorder during isolation

All children have unique learning needs, but children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD require extra guidance and support. During this unprecedented period of lock-down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, parents are finding themselves in the unique situation of needing to assist with home schooling. Here at The Parent Infant Centre we would like to offer these tips to aid understanding of what a child with autism needs and how they can be supported with their learning:

Create a structured environment – Children with autism feel more comfortable when they have a routine with clear structure and minimal deviations from their predicted schedule. Make sure the learning environment and work plans are structured in a manner that tells the child what is to be done, for how long, when it needs to be completed, when it is completed, and what comes next.

Use visual aids – Visuals are an important aspect of teaching young children, particularly for children with autism. Line drawings, photographs, language builder picture cards and stickers can be incorporated within various daily activities. Other tools such as online tutorials and videos deliver information in a visual manner that a child with ASD may find easier to absorb.

Make activities structured – Providing structure within various activities can be effective at helping children with ASD learn better. Use visuals to provide the child with information for each task or activity, in the same manner as learning plans and daily schedules. For instance, a timer can tell them how long each activity will take.

Use direct language – Young children with ASD may not understand abstract concepts or figurative language, and they tend to take most things literally. Non-verbal cues, such as animated facial expressions and gestures, can help with understanding if used well and in a consistent fashion. Practice being as direct as possible.

Scaffolding – Even when you use direct language, a child with ASD may not be able to respond or react quickly as they do not know how to perform the activity or operation. Patience is a key when you’re teaching autistic children. If you try to hurry the child or rephrase your instructions, statements or questions, you will only slow them down further as they start reprocessing. Help by showing the child how to perform an activity through scaffolding, of which there are 3 different techniques:

  1. Full scaffold – sit behind the child and direct their arms and fingers to the task, demonstrating how to do the activity (or legs and feet if there are doing gym or yoga for example)
  2. ½ scaffolding – direct the child’s elbows to indicate how to proceed with the activity, or help by softly pushing their arms to assist with writing activities for example
  3. ¼ scaffolding – tap the child’s shoulder to direct them to do an activity that it has been shown before, or tap their fingers to start writing (if they have been shown before with full scaffolding)

Be aware of sensory issues – Children with autism are either over-sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory stimuli the rest of us don’t even notice. For instance, they may be bothered by perfumes and other smells, certain lighting, or even the buzzing of electrical appliances and echoes from other areas. This leads to extreme reactions and from learning, so remain aware of potential triggers and avoid them as much as possible. Provide children with words that can help explain what they are hearing or have been affected by to help replace the distraction and therefore reduce stress and the processing of information that is being communicated to them.

Eliminate Potential Stress – Children with autism don’t react well to changes and disruptions to their routine and stress can arise from not understanding how to conduct tasks requested or not being able to comply to these instructions. To help reduce this stress use transition warnings, visual schedules and clear instructions to help make them feel at ease. Remember, positive reinforcement is far more effective than threats or punishments, which are likely to cause anxiety and behavioural issues. Focus on building a positive learning environment where they feel safe and comfortable.

Keep Instructions Simple – Complicated strings of directions can be difficult for children with ASD. Many struggle with processing oral language, so you break down instructions step-wise, and avoid giving them more than one or two at a time. Make sure you’re using short sentences and simple but clear language, allowing the child enough time to process each step and respond. 

Contact The Parent Infant Centre if you need further guidance and techniques for teaching children with autism that can be tailored to the individual requirements of the child