Pandemic Creates Learning Challenges for Children with Autism

Parents have several options to assist with a child’s education

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a plethora of changes to everyday life, including to children newly educating at home.

For children with autism spectrum disorder, learning in the classroom was already challenging. Filtering lessons through Zoom or other remote means adds an additional layer of difficulty.

Schooling at home may seem a big relief and a welcomed retreat; however, Kathy Eiss, president of Autism Society Western New York in Buffalo, said that “it’s very difficult for the families. A lot of the children area used to the structure and routine and that is being totally destroyed.”

Those struggling with staying focused find it even harder at home. A recent study of 3,500 families published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reports that 64% of caregivers said that the changes brought by the pandemic “severely or moderately impacted” their child’s autism symptoms, behaviors, mental wellbeing or related challenges. Further, 75% of parents reported that they felt extreme or moderate stress because of the disruption to their lives.

“Many parents are just trying to get by,” said physician Michelle Hartley-McAndrew, medical director of The Children’s Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Oishei Children’s Hospital. “Some are being really creative and homeschooling their children but that is the exception to the norm.”

She added that the school experience via Zoom makes it easier for children to close the laptop or move away from it. They may also become fixated or distressed seeing themselves on the screen.

“The social skills component of interacting in person with other people is non-existent,” Hartley-McAndrew said. “Many of the kids go to school all year long because they will lose some of their skills if they are not consistently practicing them. The effect of basically losing a full year is devastating for these kids who need it most. In clinic, the level of regression and behaviors we are seeing is unprecedented.”

Autism Services, Inc., in Amherst has schools for children with autism from age 5 through 21. The school received donations of Chromebooks so that the children lacking them could learn from home.

“It has been extremely challenging with remote learning,” said Veronica Federiconi, chief executive officer.

Some children are capable of remote learning, but many cannot. For the latter, the school has offered in-person learning opportunities on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with the usual protocols of masking wearing and social distancing. Wednesday is designated for deep cleaning the facilities.

“Many have to have a parent sitting next to them at home,” Federiconi said. “The parent isn’t there in school every day to learn and understand the way we’re communicating with the children and the strategies we’re using to get them involved.

“Parents have been very frustrated and some are very unhappy, calling to ask when their kid will go back in person. When we had them in school and then had to send them back several months back. When we were identified as our area as being in the orange zone, our people could not go to program, children or adults, until that was lifted.

“For autistic people, those kinds of things are difficult to understand. They can’t put it together. Seeing people through Zoom isn’t something some are used to.”