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Autism Amid Uncertainty: Expert Advice for Parents and Teachers

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Sheltered at home, away from friends and the familiarity of school, millions of students around the country are grappling with stress and uncertainty—and things could be especially trying for the estimated 710,000 school-age children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder in the nation's public schools.

Coping with the unknown brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic could prove especially difficult for students with autism, many of whom struggle with communication and abrupt changes in routine.

To help families and educators, the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder compiled a guide, "Supporting Individuals with Autism During Uncertain Times" that recommends seven strategies to support the needs of individuals with autism. The 60-page guide includes exercises and resources designed to help caregivers implement the strategies at home. Among 8-year-old children, about 1 in 54 are identified with autism spectrum disorder, recently released Centers for Disease and Control Prevention data indicate.

Kara Hume, an associate professor of applied developmental science and special education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Education and faculty fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, led the team that created the guide.

In this Q&A, Hume, a former elementary school special education teacher, offers advice on how schools and families can work together to support students with autism as they adjust to life without school. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Education Week: The guide recommends that families and teachers prioritize coping and calming skills. Why are those important for students with autism?

Hume: We all are feeling an increase of anxiety and worry. That's especially true for an individual with autism who may not have a clear understanding of what's happening or when it's going to end.

I'm really encouraging teachers to think about teaching coping and calming skills, teaching exercise and movement routines, and to think about daily living skills and how they can [encourage] families to reinforce some of those skills, like doing laundry or brushing teeth or getting dressed. That allows [parents and students] to focus on things that are more likely to be happening in the home.

Coping and calming skills could be deep breathing or yoga or drawing, coloring, counting backwards from 20, things to really work on keeping the nervous system settled. That should allow [students] to be more able to engage in whatever online instruction or remote learning opportunities they're provided with.

Education Week: How can teachers and families support each other?

Hume: There are so many changes in routine and anything that we can do to help bring the familiar to this unfamiliar or uncertain time will be helpful. So, if [students] had routines that worked well at school, with a visual schedule or a social story, we can support families by either creating them and then sending them to families or using them from our toolkit. Anything that we can do to make things feel familiar and routine would be helpful.

Families can be sharing what concerns they have. If they notice changes in behavior, if they feel like [their children] are regressing or losing some of their skills, share that with teachers so they know how to adjust instruction. [Teachers] may either need to pull back on some demands or re-shift the focus of the curriculum.

Education Week: How are the current school closures different than extended school breaks such as summer vacation?

Hume: The inability to plan is the biggest difference. Usually, when it's summer, we've wrapped up the semester, we've covered the curriculum we want to cover. There are rituals we do to signify the end of the year and then many families have a plan for the summer. There's either summer school or their summer camps that can support their child and now really parents are left without access to most of those services. It's a different experience [because] there aren't additional kinds of resources and activities and locations that can support their kiddos.

Individuals with autism are prone to social isolation and loneliness. Anything that educators and families can do to help their students stay connected with the other students in the class or school or therapy sessions helps. Having video communication or live communication so they can practice social skills and really feel a broader sense of connection is helpful.

Education Week: If you were still working as a special education teacher, what would be your focus?

Hume: I'd be checking in on the mental health and wellness of the families and the students, making that a priority. Then, trying to do whatever I could to maintain a sense of classroom community—whether that's us having the kids do a drawing or a Lego creation and then taking a picture and texting it out to the class and writing a little summary about it, if that's possible, or doing an online bingo game as a class.

I'm still a teacher, but of 125 undergrads who don't have disabilities or autism, and those are the same things I'm trying to do with them—try to make sure people are healthy, try to keep our community as connected as we can, and then continuing to add content as is appropriate. A lot of the content I'm teaching focuses on what's happening. If it's a writing activity, I'm asking, 'How are you feeling? What are you missing? What are you enjoying at home?' So really trying to blend in what's currently happening with the content.

Here's a look at the full guide, which is available in English, Spanish, Mandarin and seven other languages:

Supporting Individuals With... by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Coverage of and research on students with diverse learning needs in Education Week is supported by a grant from the Oak Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kara Hume

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