UNT BCBA offers thoughts on effective learning from home for children with ASD

DENTON (UNT), Texas — Working from home with children can be challenging, but for parents of children on the autism spectrum the challenge comes with a special set of needs.

Board Certified Behavior Analyst Miriam Koech with the Kristin Farmer Autism Center offers answers to some questions on how to make learning at home effective for both the child as well as their parents and others in the home.

Can learning at home be effective?

Yes, learning at home can be effective for a child with autism. There are several Applied Behavior Analysis teaching strategies that can be used to increase the effectiveness of teaching a child with autism, including antecedent-based interventions, prompting and reinforcement. Most parents of children who receive ABA services also participate in parent training where they learn these strategies to implement at home. There are training modules available via AFIRM or caregivers can seek individualized training from a BCBA via telehealth.

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?

The addition of new expectations in the home environment may be one of the biggest hurdles. If a child with autism is used to their time at home being free time or leisure time, it may be difficult to adjust to change where they are suddenly expected to complete school work or learning activities. Parents can use visual supports such as activity schedules to help with setting the new expectations by dividing up learning time and leisure time.

Many people have talked about the importance of creating a dedicated workspace for remote learning. What should a space like this include?

The presence of a child’s leisure activities also creates challenges with learning at home. It can be beneficial to create dedicated space for learning that removes as many of the leisure time distractions as possible. For a child with autism, it is important for the learning space to be clear of toys and any distracting pictures or text. A dedicated learning space, just like a dedicated working space, is beneficial. If different materials are needed for different learning opportunities, keep everything put away in a convenient location. Only remove the items needed for one activity at a time, to increase the child’s attention to the current task.

Students typically spend about eight hours at school. Should they be expected to do the same when learning from home?

It’s important to remember that children learn a wide variety of skills through different types of activities. Children with autism who receive services at the KFAC work on goals for communication, social, play, motor, pre-academic and daily living skills. Most of these skills can be taught during a variety of different activities. The overall amount of learning time may be more or less than eight hours, but that does not mean that the only way to learn is to sit at a desk for eight hours doing online lessons or worksheets.

Should caretakers establish a daily schedule that incorporates activities other than virtual learning? Why?

I think it is important to incorporate other activities besides structured learning time. Children that attend the KFAC have snack time, recess time - a structured gross motor activity - and play time with peers scheduled into their days to provide opportunities to work on social, play, group and motor skills. Including fun and active exercises throughout the day will help keep them motivated.

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 recommend that parents of children with autism reach out to their BCBA (if their child is receiving ABA services) and share their concerns. The BCBA may be able to offer training via telehealth. There are also online trainings available for some topics. AFIRM is a site developed by UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute that has a wide variety of learning modules as well as COVID-19 specific resources.

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?

The parents I work with are doing a great job balancing their responsibilities with work, their child’s continued progress and their usual responsibilities in the home. The fact that they are worried about not doing a good job and the effort that they are putting into their child’s development shows how much they care. Everyone is adjusting to the change in circumstances and we should give ourselves time to adjust. Being at home may allow for more time to focus on developing independence with daily living skills that may not be available in the school or therapy environment. Overall, create as many learning opportunities across different skills areas as possible, but remember to balance out the needs of everyone in the family including time for parents to rest and enjoy some of their own leisure activities.