By Alexis Morley
As many parents of children on the autism spectrum will attest, traditional school settings may present the challenge of a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Several factors can inhibit the learning experience for a student with autism: teachers moving too quickly through material, multiple transitions throughout the day and general overall social requirements.
Luckily, there are a number of alternate options offering a different pace and path to education. Online education is one option and can provide either supplemental or full-time instruction for students with ASD.
At first glance, the world of online education can be vast and overwhelming. One way to determine which option provides the best support for your child is to consider if you’re looking for the entirety of his or her’s education to be online, or if you’re looking for more supplemental opportunities.
Connections Academy is a free, online public school where students in grades K-12 study both the basics, as well as electives in areas such as art history or technology. Supplemental field trips and online forums allow students to connect with others in small, contained groups.
Time4Learning, an online paid service specifically geared toward students with autism, also provides pre-K-12 students with the core subjects and electives in economics or health. Both programs allow users to work at their own pace, highlighting a reason that online education is a good fit for students with autism.
By being able to learn at an individual pace and adapt to unique learning abilities and style, online students can take extra time to absorb information without the pressure of holding back a whole class. Learning online can provide deeper instruction in specific areas of need, whereas some teachers in a traditional setting are constricted by time and a high student ratio.
Alternatively, students who are able to move through subjects quickly no longer grow bored or distracted waiting for other students to complete a lesson. Time4Learning is designed to let students separate their math and English work rates to approach learning each subject at different rates as needed.
Some families are unable to commit to the time it takes for full-time online education. Therefore, using online education as a supplement to what is already being taught during the day might be a better fit.
Autism Expressed is a company that works to add additional information to the current K-12 standard curriculum. While many students on the autism spectrum are well-versed in digital gaming and online videos, Autism Expressed tries to supplement general digital and Internet skills.
Jobs today, and increasingly many of our social interactions, rely an understanding of the nuances of digital literacy. With a curriculum specifically geared towards ‘tween and teens on the spectrum, Autism Expressed hopes to “teach digital skills that can support students as they move through school and onto higher education, jobs and overall independence.”
Just like full-time online schooling, modules are student-driven and self-paced to allow an individualized rate of learning. They start with Internet basics and move through to more advanced skills, like safely interacting on social media. Students finish with a completed online portfolio showcasing their skills and abilities that they can take to future job interviews or attach to college applications.
This extra instructional time for Internet basics can include online social skills, how to organize an electronic calendar and being able to organize thoughts in a computer program before writing a paper.
The development of apps for use with a smartphone, such as an Android or iPhone®, along with software, are other ways to boost your child’s educational experience. There are apps that address social communication, such as QuickCues by Fraser, language, like FaceUp Matching and functional skills, like Chore Pad HD.
Other apps are available to aid in reading skills, learning pronouns, increasing vocabulary and identifying emotions. One thing to consider when selecting an app, or really any online education program, is the research and efficacy behind the app. There are plenty of entertainment apps, (AngryBirds, anyone?), however ultimately they don’t expand your student’s academic skills.
Other apps and online programs will weave proven therapy methods, such as Applied Behavior Analysis. A good approach to find the best apps for your child is to speak with a clinician or educator. Often a professional’s suggestion can offer apps that are tailored to a specific skill, or area of weakness, your child is working on. Several organizations will list apps, how they can help a certain area and what the evidence exists to support their use.
Online and computer-based education can be a great fit for students on the spectrum due to their unique attributes. Many programs, apps and software not only allow for students to learn through multiple sensory modalities (pictures, sounds and hands-on activities), but also provide videos that model correct behavior or skills.
Video modeling has been shown to be effective method when working with children on the spectrum. A video model, unlike a teacher in a classroom, can be paused and viewed repeatedly until a child is able to master the skill. Many programs target a connected skill in addition to addressing the main purpose of a lesson. For example, while learning how to send an e-mail, a student might also work on appropriate ways to address a friend online, or the etiquette behind sending a note to a professional colleague.
Gaining multiple skills from one lesson helps children integrate what they’ve learned into daily life better than learning in isolation. Kids can make connections they might not otherwise get if solely focused on learning one specific skill.
Alexis Morley is a second year speech-language pathology Masters student at Pacific University. In the past she’s worked in Portland State University’s Autism & Child Language Disorders Lab as well as served as a volunteer with Autism Society of Oregon. She has previously written content for Seattle Magazine and InsideJobs.com.