Challenges not only for students with Autism
Over the past 10 months, the Corona pandemic has obviously taken a toll on school systems, teachers, students and their parents. If even adults groan at the lack of predictability in schools, what might it be like for students with autism, who need predictability so much more? This group finds it difficult when schedules, learning locations, teaching methods, and contacts change from one day to the next. Often this causes significant stress and triggers serious behavioral problems.
Now Christmas is coming and the second lockdown has been determined necessary in Germany. Did it have to come to this? What can we learn from countries that have been more successful in combating the crisis so far? What help is available through individual solutions, online learning and qualified teaching assistants for children and adolescents with autism?
Too much discussion and too slow actions
What the world surely wishes most urgently for Christmas is that the pandemic comes to a stop and that schools and the rest of society return to regular operations. This goal seems to be achieved, especially in Asian countries, and it makes one wonder, why they have been so much more successful.
Online Team-teaching in Singapore
Lessons for the future?
Even though flexibility is necessary in times of an unpredictable virus, the threat of Covid 19 in Germany has obviously been underestimated compared to the above examples. Compared to the German ups and downs of the rules, many Asian countries as well as New Zealand and Australia took quicker and more uniform actions to effectively manage the crisis. Considering the current emergency situation, sustainable, binding solutions are becoming increasingly important.
o It would be desirable if the responsible ministers of education and health authorities improve the planning, coordination and knowledge of the situation of parents, teachers and students. Here, quick and unambiguous directives can be more useful than "endless discussions like in an anti-authoritarian kindergarten" (Bartens, SDZ). It is obvious that successful countries reacted faster and more unambiguously.
o Even with the possibility of showing infection chains more quickly via Corona apps, endless discussions with data protectionists stood in the way of effective containment - again in contrast to many Asian countries.
o If parents have the option to choose between different forms of instruction (face-to-face/online/hybridclass), this can allow for more effective instruction in smaller groups, as is the case here in Southern California. In contrast, is it really the best solution (such as practiced in many German schools) to teach 30 students for hours on end with an N95 mask, regularly opening doors and windows in winter temperatures? This perhaps with an inclusion student commenting loudly and leaving the situation in protest!
o Safe and competent support especially for students with autism or special needs must also be guaranteed in all schools. Here, the qualification of school shadows is a huge opportunity to effectively support students with autism or other learning disabilities. Although such support is a unquestioned right, working in the child’s home is seldom allowed even if learning is only possible through individual support during online instruction. Here flexibility on the part of the authorities - especially for more severely impaired children with autism - would be a boon for parents.
o When the infection rate climbs above a certain percentage, online teaching should be used effectively. Unfortunately German schools are not well prepared for this challenge. There is now widespread agreement that IT requirements in communities, health departments, schools and parents' homes must be improved for this purpose. Students must be equipped with appropriate devices; suitable software must be found; programmed curricula must be expanded, and teachers and parents must be trained for online instruction. As a transitional solution, team-teaching of technology-distant teachers by IT-teachers or even students or volunteers (including parents or students with autism) could be considered.
How can students with autism benefit from online instruction?
As early as in the nineties, we were able to show that computer programs motivate children with autism and that language and social behavior could be developed even in severely impaired children. In the meantime, differentiated communication apps, learning programs, video and data systems are available.
o In both face-to-face and online situations, well-structured and visually simplified instructional materials are a basic learning requirement for most students with autism.
o Clear agreements on the lesson plan, learning objectives and behavioral expectations, as well as the use of motivating media, work materials and individually relevant project work are also helpful in online learning.
o If the student gains few benefits from the general curriculum, the targeted use of learning apps, videos, and freely available Internet resources on all subjects and grade levels can be used as a relatively quick solution. Even social training via teletherapy can be facilitated through appropriate programs. Students can be motivated through interactive online or PPT lectures, projects of their interest, and chat rooms.
Wishes, not only for Christmas!
Even if the vaccine defeats Covid-19 next year, schools will not emerge from the crisis unchanged. Perhaps the pandemic will enable the German education system to catch up more quickly with international standards and push ahead with e-learning, innovative teaching methods, teacher training and inclusion. After all, Germany also has good models, which could be explored.
It would be desirable if decision-makers consider the experiences of students, teachers and parents over the past few months. In addition comparison with other countries can set appropriate standards. Instead of giving covid deniers and conspiration theories a platform in the media, it would certainly be more helpful to publicly discuss successful school models from Germany and abroad.
Online learning urgently needs to be further developed so German students are better prepared for the demands of the future or even for a possible new crisis. It is certainly not easy to convince and inspire older teachers who are not familiar with technology.
Children and adolescents with autism need special protection and require effective assistance to learn successfully. Smaller learning groups, autism-specific measures with increased and effective use of online learning options, as well as qualified school shadows will also be helpful when returning to regular classes.
Maybe the shutdown period during the Christmas season can be used in Germany to develop concrete plans for the challenges above.
In any case, I wish you a safe Christmas season, a healthy 2021, and maybe even a few more effective laptops or iPads with good learning programs!
Vera Bernard-Opitz, December 2020