Success with Distance Learning for Kids with Autism

Success with Distance Learning for Kids with Autism 460 306 bh360

A boy doing distance learning class

Success with Distance Learning for Kids with Autism

Susan Rischall Heytow, M.Ed., BCBA

Suddenly, schools closed their doors because of the COVID-19 public health crisis. Parents now find themselves in a new situation and are essentially responsible for continuing their child’s education at home.

If this is you, your child’s teacher may be using technology such as ZOOM®, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Schoology and other platforms to communicate with your child. To ensure your child can participate, you’ll need to provide him or her with access to a device and to high speed internet.

Whether your child’s teacher communicates online or provides printed packets of materials, your child will most likely need some help. The task before you may seem daunting, especially if you’re facing all this with a child who has autism or another developmental disability. You’re likely wondering what to do, how to cope and where to start.

The impact is even greater if your child was receiving 1:1 assistance in the classroom from a qualified behavior interventionist before COVID-19. Obviously since your child is no longer in the classroom, this assistance is either modified or is no longer available.

How do you manage the situation you are in and turn it into a successful and positive experience for you and your child? There are many things you can consider that can be beneficial.

Dealing with Confusion

The first challenge you’re likely to encounter is your child’s confusion over the need to do “school” while “at home.” For a child with autism, routine is important, change can be difficult, and merging the “school” and “home” worlds can be hard for your child to understand and accept.

As you begin to deal with this confusion, it’s crucial your child sees you as cool, calm and collected. Explain the current situation in an age appropriate way. Let your child know that everyone is home, even the teachers are at home, and that this is a new way to learn. It may take a while, but with consistency, the blending of “school” and “home” will become more routine, and your child will likely come to accept the new situation.

Keep a Schedule

Schools have schedules. Kids work best when they have a schedule and know what they can expect of others as well as what is expected of them. Be sure to plan for learning time as well as play time. Try a brain break, like a quick game of tic-tac-toe; or try a movement break like a 2-minute game of Simon Says.

After longer tasks, allow 15-30 minutes of outdoor play time. When your child has worked for a longer time, breaks can be longer too. In addition to play time, you will want to schedule time for snacks. Some snacks will be eaten during break time while others will be a finger food snack to eat while working.

Keeping in mind time for work, play, and nutritious snacks throughout the day, create a visual schedule for your child using pictures and/or words. Depending on your child’s ability, this can be broad or specific. You can make it elaborate and colorful or just write a list. You can include the actual time of day or just the order of events. Be creative. An example of a schedule might be:

  • Wake up, get dressed
  • Breakfast
  • School session with Ms. Smith
  • Break and snack
  • Work on assignment with Mom
  • Lunch
  • Play outside (P.E time)
  • School session with Ms. Jones
  • Break and snack
  • Finish incomplete work (on own or with help)
  • End of school day

Doing School at Home

While schools are generally in session for 6 or more hours per day, it’s important to realize that your child is not engaged in academic tasks for 6 hours straight. During distance learning, your child may spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 or 4 hours per day actually engaged in learning activities.

Learning will occur both on screen and off screen. Some assignments will be completed during video-conferencing sessions with the teacher. Other assignments will be completed independently and may involve the use of a computer. Some assignments may be printed on paper for your child to complete without the computer. No matter what approach is being used, you’ll need to be nearby to assist as needed.

Using Technology

If access to an appropriate device is a challenge for you, ask your child’s teacher if the school can provide a laptop or a tablet to borrow.

If access to high speed internet is an issue, check out this resource from the California Department of Education (CDE) for free and low cost access to the internet:

Once your child has access to the internet, with adult supervision, help your child use technology to access learning.

Basic Strategies for Success

Some kids may be able to attend to a 1-hour video-conference session without much assistance while others may need repeated redirection to look at the computer screen every couple of minutes. Likewise, when working on independent assignments, some kids can stay on task without much help, while others will need to be redirected more frequently.

Similarly, some kids can easily move from online instruction to independent learning to break time and back to independent learning without much of a challenge. Others will struggle. Be aware of your child’s needs and intervene as necessary.

No matter what your specific challenges with distance learning may be, there are simple strategies you can follow to help you better manage your child’s experience.

Priming – Advance Notice

Example: “In 5 minutes play time is over and we are going back into the house for learning…in 3 minutes play time will be over and it will be learning time…1 more minute of play time and then it is learning time.”


Example: “What do you want to use for your work? The red crayon or the blue crayon.”

First / Then

Example: “First read one page and then you can color.”

Task Analysis – Individual Steps for Larger Tasks

Example: To practice spelling words: 1) read the word out loud, 2) trace the word 3 times saying the names of the letters, 3) write the word 3 times, 4) turn the paper over and say the names of the letters, 5) write the word on his or her own.

Task Reduction

Example: Require completing just the odd numbered math problems.


Example: Provide praise after each math problem is solved and then provide a break after the entire page is completed.

Additional Resources

In addition to joining your child’s teacher for online sessions, there are many learning websites that may support your child’s needs. City and county libraries have online access to a multitude of educational resources. Each school district has its own website and has recommendations for parents, teachers, and students. You may access any school district website; it does not need to be your own district.

Check out the California Department of Education (CDE) website as they also have links to numerous resources. Both school districts and the CDE have information available in multiple languages.

Final Thoughts

Remember that distance learning is new for everyone . . . teachers, parents, and kids . . . so have patience and give our teachers, our kids, and yourself a break. We are all doing the best we can in an incredibly challenging situation. We’ll be doing distance learning at least until the end of this school year. So, take a deep breath, keep calm and carry on.

If you are struggling with distance learning, requesting help from a qualified behavioral therapy services provider may be the answer. Behavioral therapy based on the science of applied behavior analysis (ABA) is available in-home and via telehealth. Parent training and coaching is also available. Traditional or Specialized respite services might also be a solution to give you an extra set of hands at home to provide a temporary break or assistance when needed.

To learn more about services that might benefit you and your child, request a consultation to arrange for a complimentary 30-minute phone consultation.

About the Author

Susan has worked with children for more than 40 years, first as a preschool teacher, an elementary school teacher, and then an assistant principal at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  After retiring from LAUSD, Susan began her work in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis with California Psychcare. She’s a true Angelino – born and raised in the San Fernando Valley.

Susan earned her bachelor’s degree in child development from California State University, San Luis Obispo and her Master’s in Education from California State University, Northridge. After joining California Psychcare in 2006, she was influenced by its founder, Dr. Ali Sadeghi, and completed her BCBA credential in 2011.   In her current role as Director of Clinical Services – School District Department, Susan oversees the behavior intervention services provided to special education students in LAUSD.

Susan has two grown children and two young grandchildren. She enjoys county dancing and collecting giraffes.

Susan Rischall Heytow, M.Ed., BCBA

Director of Clinical Services – School District Department
California Psychcare

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