The thought of returning to distance learning this fall is intimidating for most families, and even more so if your child is on the autism spectrum. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to give your child with autism the most successful learning environment possible.

Distance learning tips for children with autism

  1. Create a quiet, distraction-free space for your child to learn. Your child should use this space every day for schoolwork.
  2. Find a fun activity your child can look forward to each day. Come up with a list of fun activities (other than screen time) for your child to choose from each day, like art or outside playtime. If possible, spend 10 minutes doing that one activity together.
  3. Set reasonable goals for your child. It’s okay if your child doesn’t learn and do everything they normally would during the school year. Try to set goals that are achievable. If you make those goals then you can raise the bar.
  4. Think about how to support your child’s learning without making it your job to be their teacher. You’re probably trying to juggle your job as well as your child’s education, so don’t attempt the impossible. You are not their teacher. Instead, think how you can best support their learning by:
    • Is there a quiet space in the house with less distraction?
    • How can you incorporate movement breaks into the day?

    The bottom line is that you should readjust your expectations – you can’t fully replace your child’s teacher.

  5. Go back to the basics. Figure out which of your child’s needs you can best meet and focus on those first.
  6. Advocate as much as you can. Set up meetings to discuss IEPs and 504 plans as well as distance learning accommodations as early as you can. Discuss things like reducing your child’s workload and maximizing their time in 1-on-1 instruction.
  7. Be sure to continue with your child’s medication. If your child normally takes a stimulant for school, keep giving it to them – online school is still school.

It’s okay to take a step back from school

Unfortunately, there are some children with autism for whom distance is just not feasible. Kids who are minimally verbal, need 1-on-1 instruction, are very developmentally delayed or who have significant sensory needs all fall into this category. If this is the case with your child, and you need to take a step away from the school system right now, then do it. Don’t make your child sit in a room and watch Zoom all day if it’s not working for them. Try looking at the schedule and choosing one or two short time periods during their day that have the most benefit to your child – for example one-on-one coaching or virtual speech therapy. Let the rest go!

There will be plenty of time in the future to meet your child’s educational goals and it’ll be much easier to come back from an educational or academic deficit than an emotional setback. If you have to make a choice between your child’s physical/emotional well-being and their education, you should always choose their well-being.


Allison Ratto Allison Ratto, PhD, is a psychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National. She specializes in assessment and treatment of ASD and related developmental disorders, particularly in young children and intellectually delayed individuals.

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