“It just fits my needs better”: Autistic students and parents’ experiences of learning from home during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, a summary for non-academics

Written by Bec Poulsen

Authors: Melanie Heyworth, Simon Brett, Jacquiline den Houting, Iliana Magiati, Robyn Steward, Anna Urbanowicz, Marc Stears and Elizabeth Pellicano

Affiliations: Reframing Autism, Macquarie School of Education, Macquarie University, Autism CRC, School of Psychological Science UWA, Wellcome Trust, RMIT University and Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney

Journal: Autism & Developmental Language Impairments

Funding: Australian Research Council and Macquarie University

In this recently published research, Reframing Autism’s CEO, Dr Melanie Heyworth, and colleagues from Australia and the UK, interviewed Autistic school-age students as well as Autistic and non-autistic parents of Autistic school-age children and youth. Their aim was to understand how students have been affected by COVID-19 during the early phases of the pandemic. In this paper, they report some positive experiences found in learning within the home environment that could be incorporated into school-based face-to-face learning.

Why did they do the study?

COVID-19 has caused disruption to many things, including schooling, which has affected more than a billion students worldwide. Disruptions for students included coming in and out of lockdowns and restrictions, and transitioning and adjusting to teacher-led, parent-delivered home learning, which we referr to as “home learning”. As the pandemic progresses, it is important to know what Autistic students’ experiences have been during this time and see if there is anything we can learn to enhance Autistic students’ schooling experiences, especially where the learning from home environment is a new experience.

What did they find?

The results of this study found there were several challenges during this time, mostly associated with adapting to the home learning environment, trying to navigate through the learning systems set in place by schools, and understanding the expectations and timelines of schoolwork assigned during this time. These issues were further exacerbated for students with individualised support needs, where, in some cases, any supports that were in place disappeared completely in the transition to home learning. Indeed, some parents and carers reported no correspondence or contact from schools about supporting their Autistic child during home learning.

However, some participants (and their parents) found that after transitioning to home learning they flourished, not only with classwork but personally as well. This study identified three sources that supported students’ engagement in a home learning environment: 

1. People. The importance of connected, trusting relationships

“People” included students’ relationships with parents, who were able to support their child’s specific needs and preferences to improve their health and wellbeing, as well as having quality time together. Additionally, students valued trusting relationships with attentive teachers.

2. Place. The sensory and social safety of home

Students reported feeling relieved at not having to deal with overstimulating sensory environments, social pressures, and expectations. The home environment was a safe and predictable place, with lowered sensory demands and fewer social expectations.

3. Time. The flexibility to pace and structure learning to suit the individual child

Students and parents reported that young Autistic people flourished because they had the flexibility to tailor their learning timetable and set their own responsive routines. Students appreciated being able to learn at their own pace, to have time to decompress, to respond to their needs at any given time, to have fewer transitions, and the time for self-reflection.

With these three key ingredients, in many cases, students and parents of students reported students having a sense of “calm” or “coming out of their shell” and showed substantial progress in learning and life skills.

Why is this important? 

There have been many challenges with regards to the continuous changes to schooling during the pandemic. This study acknowledges those challenges for Autistic students, but also highlights some of the benefits of the changes to schooling. The results of this study show some key conditions that might make more conventional face-to-face schooling more successful for Autistic children, who often find formal schooling incredibly challenging.

How can we apply this knowledge in our current circumstances?

As the pandemic situation progresses and changes, there are two main questions we can ask:

1. How can we better support Autistic students in the areas that are more challenging in this time, especially regarding transitions and changes between educational environments and expectations? 

2. How can we incorporate the benefits of home learning, as documented in this study, into schooling and learning environments in the future?

These findings identify ways  we can support Autistic students to flourish at school from what we have learned during the pandemic. They provide evidence for the benefit of offering more self-directed flexibility in and control of an Autistic student’s learning environment, and flexibility in establishing how and when Autistic children learn by giving them the opportunity to set their own learning schedule. Finally, these results show that opening ourselves to a previously dismissed approach to education, including incorporating what has worked within a home-learning context, may create more opportunities for Autistic children to flourish in schooling and education.

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