The Corona Crisis and Schooling for Children with Autism

Vera Bernard-Opitz


Yesterday I received a photo showing a white-painted garden house with the banner “Welcome to 3rd Grade”. It was wide open towards the green meadow showing a teacher and seven children (not pictured because of confidentiality). The students were socially distanced and wore headsets, obviously participating in online schooling. The photo was taken close to my home in Southern California, which is currently plagued by high infection rates. Until the risk goes down online schooling will be our norm. 


Parents, particularly those who now work from home, are now searching for individual solutions for their kids’ education.  It has been demonstrated that young regular education students were significantly set back by online instruction only. Their attention is not engaged during the entire class. They often engage in multi-tasking through chats, emails and Google searches. Most parents can only dream about a virtual school experience such as took place in the garden cottage discussed above, where a teacher actually supervised small student groups in online education.


Children, adolescents and adults with Autism suffered in a unique way from the stress of the past Corona months. Those with autism tend to be afraid of changes and prefer their familiar routines. The changes in their regular home, school and job routines, mask wearing, constant disinfection and hand washing as well as restrictions in movement posed immense challenges for this group.


Especially non-verbal more severely impaired individuals did not understand the “new normality”. Many had no schooling at all and had to be supervised by their parents, other family members or neighbors, since schools argued that the students were unable to respect the safety and hygiene rules. Well meant teacher’s efforts with “We miss you” signs or online songs failed to be very helpful.


Highlights during the pandemic

On the other hand, some positive experiences during the last half-year were noted and maybe those can give directions in case the pandemic continues to make regular schooling unpredictable.  Let’s look at some positives:


  • Parents and schools have become (a bit) more familiar with online schooling.
  • Increased budgets are now available for online teaching and teachers use related training offers more frequently.
  • Some publishers have made online material and learning apps available free of charge.
  • Some schools have demonstrated that regular schooling from 8:00 am onward and the use of interesting media is feasible and motivating for students.
  • Due to restricted class attendance some students with autism were glad to have more leisure time so they could engage more intensively with their technical, sportive or computer-hobbies.
  • Some teachers have found individual solutions for students with autism, such as daily 2 to 4 hours of schooling in a remote classroom on the school site.
  • School shadows and co-therapists of ABA/ABT teams have been successful in promoting their student’s learning outside of the school environment (in some cases even in their own homes). Some of these students have even shown increased learning rates during the corona period in comparison to their regular classroom attendance.
  • Online support has become more common for medical doctors, psychologists and therapy as well as some autism centers.


Combining the best from on- & offline schooling

When we had to make a decision between Germany and the US a guest wrote into our guest book “Take the best of both worlds”. What does that mean for on-/offline-schooling for students with autism in case the pandemic lives with us for a longer time period?


  • The higher structure of the teaching material can be beneficial for both scenarios.
  • Access and use of media in teaching such as communication- and learning apps as well as videos can motivate students and facilitate progress.
  • Spatial distance and one-to one or small group teaching can reduce stress for students with autism. For some of them wearing a mask is even a welcome opportunity not to have to be social.
  • Transparent dividers, face shields and visual markings can also allow students with more severe challenges to participate in small group teaching in schools.
  • Parents, teachers and school shadows who are trained in online teaching, behavior and learning strategies can be more flexible regarding both teaching options.
  • Well-trained supervised school shadows or co-therapists can provide an enormous chance for affected students, since they allow for continuity between educational settings.


Concrete Ideas

Maybe you have additional “good ideas” for this difficult time, which you want to share! In the coming blog we can discuss ways to explain the pandemic to children with autism. We will also suggest ideas for social distancing and options to enhance social skills online.


Even if we can’t provide a garden-house alternative for students with autism, positive developments in different countries can alert to chances … maybe even the prospect that learning for individuals with autism improves even more after the pandemic.