Advantages of online learning for some students on the Autism Spectrum
Early in my career as a school psychologist, my primary role was to identify why students struggled to learn. I consulted with teachers and administrators every day to solve problems related to a student’s academic, behavioral, and social challenges in an effort to individualize classroom supports so that every student could succeed.
Since March, I have been meeting with teenagers and families via Telehealth, solving problems related to how each student can best access their education whether they are learning online, in the school building with safety precautions, or a hybrid of both.
I’m seeing that while remote learning is far from ideal for many students, some of our middle and high school students are finding success outside the traditional classroom. While we don’t yet have quantitative data, my mental health colleagues and I are starting to notice a pattern. Some autistic students are thriving for the first time ever. So, what are the advantages of online learning? Why is it working so well for them?
Advantages of online learning for Autistic students
1. Flexibility and pacing
The structure and pacing of a standardized curriculum just doesn’t work well for some autistic students, who are most engaged when following their interests and working at their own speed. And, prior to 2020, parents had to come up with a plan themselves as many public-school systems were not set up to support students online. Although 2020 remote learning doesn’t necessarily mean more flexibility (think: Zooming into the same class schedule as normal), the broader category of online learning can sometimes mean more control for the student over how to study and learn
Copyeditor and sensitivity reader, Amy Langston, who is autistic herself and began learning online in 2009 when she was in the ninth grade, recalls, “The best parts of online learning were the flexibility and the pacing. The flexibility enabled me to work when I was most productive. I was not fixed to a schedule, instead creating my own schedule with my parents’ oversight. My high school courses were self-paced. The self-pacing meant I could take as much or as little time as necessary to master the material.”
For some students, being in control of their schedule and task demands of the day seems to be making a big difference.
One autistic high school senior in the Washington, D.C. metro area is “living his best life as a virtual student,” according to his mother. She explained that fewer transitions have been a game changer for him. “He doesn’t have to wake up early to be at the bus stop by 6:50 a.m. every morning for a 30-minute bus ride. He doesn’t have to deal with class changes and the struggle, in a crowded school setting, of making it to classes on time.”
There have also been benefits in her son’s energy level during online learning. “He actually exercises every day now, race walking for 60-90 minutes each day on a treadmill,” she says. “He was always too exhausted to do anything when he would come home from school. Now, he is in better physical shape as well as emotional shape. His grades are reflecting this, too.”
2. Following student interests
We know from the research of Dr. Stanley Greenspan that following the play interests of autistic children allows them to manage stress and, therefore, engage more easily with others. Allowing students to incorporate their interests into their learning experience has been a consistent barrier in traditional education as curriculums are often uniform for all students. Online learning has provided some variability that has eased this structure.
One middle schooler learning online in Australia “was able to concentrate without distractions. She could complete more work and go deeper into subjects she was interested in such as engineering and languages,” her mother told me. “Also, due to being able to complete her work faster, she spent more time outside applying what she had learned in real life.”
Amy Langston agrees. “With autism and having special areas of interest, homeschooling gave me the space to discover and nurture my interests. I had more time to delve into my special interests, and I could take courses that I found interesting.”
3. When stress decreases, learning increases
Autistic individuals are most engaged in learning when they can manage sensory input and anxiety. Many autistic students experience sensitivities to the noise and crowds of busy hallways and cafeterias. As one parent says, “The quieter environment can help a lot. The biggest complaint from my daughters has been the noise levels and completely inappropriate behavior of students interrupting their learning.”
Also, managing stress in a stimulating environment can drain an autistic student’s energy. This is one reason why many autistic students are exhausted by the end of the school day. “For some students—those with anxiety, autism, and others—the pressure comes off when they are allowed to work from home,” one mom says.
“I enjoy not having to see people or talk to people. And I like having the ability to set my own schedule,” reports an autistic middle schooler learning online in the greater Philadelphia area. His mother shared that she is seeing for the first time how her son learns best. “Being in the thick of my child’s learning activities has helped me understand a lot more about how he learns. This really works for him and he’s able to maintain the self-direction necessary to do it. And I’m now much better able to advocate for solutions that work for him as well as help him self-advocate.”
4. Taking ownership of learning
Learning isn’t just about content. Students need to learn how to organize their work, advocate for themselves, and become independent thinkers.
Online classes achieved this for Amy Langston. “Online learning requires more independence, self-advocacy, and decision-making. And I know these skills can be tough for autistic teens,” says Amy. “For me, it was an opportunity to develop these skills where the stakes might have been a bit lower. Entering college, I had a good sense of how to organize and understand my requirements. Online learning prepared me to not only be comfortable with learning on my own, but also empowered my lifelong learning. I know that education is always within my reach.”
Parents I spoke with agreed. “Following the lead of the child enables them to take control of their own learning, have more say over their life. And often, when allowed, many will thrive if their interests are applied to different subjects,” one parent says. Another parent notes, “If my son has an option to continue this way when students are otherwise able to return, I will allow him to continue. The self-direction I’ve seen in him is really extraordinary.”
5. Online learning is now mainstream
Prior to 2020, homeschooling and online classes were considered an unusual choice that some parents felt the need to defend. If adapting to life in 2020 has taught parents anything, let’s hope it’s that we are all doing the best we can with the resources we have. There is no room for judgment when it comes to following how our children learn best.
“One size does not fit all,” says one parent, “and virtual learning is problematic for plenty of kids. But some kids are blossoming through virtual learning. I hope going forward, districts, especially those that are overcrowded, start to think about different educational delivery methods in order to meet more students where they are.”
Amy Langston also hopes to see more flexible thinking around in-person and remote learning post-COVID. “It’s important to remember that just as not one teaching method is right for every child, the same is true for in-person learning,” she says. “Even for students who don’t continue with online schools, I’m hoping we’ll continue this experiment in the offerings of technology.”
Emily W. King, Ph.D.
Dr. Emily W. King is a child and adolescent psychologist who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and two boys, who are both learning online this school year.