This year was filled with transitions in (and out of) the classroom, with students, teachers, and parents having to adapt between the back and forth between in-person and virtual learning. We saw the pandemic disrupt learning patterns for all students, particularly those with neurodiverse needs. How have kids on the autism spectrum been impacted in terms of learning and development?

Each student with autism will have their own unique areas of challenges and strengths when it comes to school. But we know that kids on the spectrum typically experience greater success and learning when their environments and routines are consistent and predictable. For all of us, the pandemic took our usual, predictable routines and threw them out the window. Most of us, eventually, have been able to make the necessary adjustments in order to cope and adapt to the “new normal.” However, this is where kids with autism lose pace with the rest of their classmates. They often struggle with transitions, flexible thinking, planning and prioritizing, and applying what they already know to new or unfamiliar situations. The result is that even when asked to do something familiar (e.g. participate in class), to a student with ASD, it’s like asking them to learn something brand new from the beginning.

What cues should parents be on the lookout for when trying to spot learning gaps among their children?

In my experience, whether it be in home, school, or clinical settings, one big red flag I look out for is how independently the individual can complete the task they’re asked to do – especially if this is something you believe they already know. For example, I worked with a family who said their child expresses their wants and needs quite well, but when I observed the interaction, I realized that the parents would always run through a list of “do you wants” until they got a “yes”. Do you want grapes? Do you want an apple? Do you want milk? But if they’d asked, “What would you like to eat?” the child was unable to answer.

I always advise people to be aware of their own actions, and how they may be influencing the child’s learning. In this case, the learning gap is overlooked because the supporters around the child are unknowingly compensating for it.

How can parents address and speak about learning gaps directly with their children in a sensitive, empathetic way?

First of all, I think it’s important to not put the blame on the child, or shame them for their current academic performance. If the child is struggling to learn new skills or concepts, it means the approach to teaching being used is not working for that individual, and it’s up to the adults supporting that child to collaborate and figure out a new approach that may work better for that learner.

When speaking to the child, parents can normalize the fact that we all have differences. We all have things that come easily to us but not to others, and things we struggle with that others find easy. Parents can let their kids know that how they learn may be different, but not wrong, and that they are there to help figure out the best way to teach them, based on how they learn.

With the summer season coming up, children will be eager to get outside, but this presents challenges for parents who are keen to close the learning gaps brought on by the pandemic. What are some tips and tricks parents can use to keep their children engaged in learning/education throughout the summer?

Learning shouldn’t stop just because the school year ends. Summer is a great time to work on what we call the generalization and functionality of skills. Put more simply, the emphasis shifts from learning new concepts, to applying the concepts previously learned in new and practical ways out in the real world, and doing them more independently.

Trips to the playground, taking public transit, visiting local historical sites can easily be turned into real world practice for social skills, self-help routines, or literacy and math concepts. The more you can incorporate these concepts into preferred interests and activities of the child, the more meaningful it will be to them, and the concepts will make more sense.

How can technology support student learning among children with autism, or with neurodiverse needs? Contrary to conversations about the challenges of virtual schooling, is online education actually a better learning format for kids with specific learning needs?

Again this can really vary from one student to another. Technology in and of itself is neither inherently good or bad for kids with neurodiverse needs. Technology can either help remove learning barriers, or it can actually exasperate learning barriers. So it’s important to first identify what features of the learning environment are supporting the child, and what is hindering them. From there, it’ll be easier to select the appropriate technological solutions that are supportive.

Classrooms can be overwhelming to the senses; noise, movement, lighting smells, multiple voices talking at once, can all interfere with the student’s ability to learn. Virtual learning can help remove those barriers to learning.

On the other hand, if a student relies on their in-person routines to remain engaged, such as taking the attendance to the office each morning, or holding the door for the class to enter the school, or having the teacher recognize when they are getting a bit antsy and need to be reengaged, then the objective is to apply technology in a way to meet those same needs.

What steps can parents take to help fill the learning gaps that their kids are experiencing? What about for parents with kids with ASD or neurodiverse needs? What is technology’s role in all of this, and how can online technology education tools, like Sonderly, be used to support parents in fulfilling their childrens’ learning needs?

The information and examples I’ve shared are just a few thoughts and ideas that come to mind based on years of first-hand experience, research, feedback from educators, clinical observations, and having the wonderful opportunity to work with so many kids on the spectrum and their families. It’s the desire to distill this collective knowledge and insight of our clinical professionals that is the backbone of Sonderly. Our courses go far beyond describing autism. They give context as to how autism and neurodiversity impacts the individual. They not only provide the necessary tools to support these individuals more effectively, but why these tools are needed and the underlying needs they are intended to support.

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