How Parents Can Help Children with Autism Navigate the “New Normal” of At-Home Learning

By Rachael Sautter, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Director of Educational Services for Y.A.L.E. School’s Autism Program

With the current outbreak of COVID-19, parents are adjusting their home-lives and work-lives to what we now call the “new normal.” But for students on the autism spectrum, nothing feels normal about this change. And yet, it is so important that parents and educators join together to help diffuse the disruption. Together, that’s exactly what we’re accomplishing as we help learning continue.

Many students like the ones in my care at Y.A.L.E. School have had to adapt to a rapid change to remote education, which we implemented in response to the current guidelines from the state of New Jersey. Here are a few tactics that I often suggest to parents and guardians to help students with autism make the learn-at-home transition.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Easier said than done. When crisis strikes, it’s normal to feel anxious, but individuals on the spectrum can be especially sensitive to emotional stress and changes in his or her physical environment. Keep your child as calm as possible by herding rowdy younger siblings into quiet activities to carve out as much individual support for your youngster with autism as possible during learning times. Encourage others in the house, especially teens, to minimize the sound on electronic devices to avoid sensory issues and distractions. Consider having serious adult conversations in private. As the news cycle continues to buzz with updates, move to another room to watch or listen.

Communication is Key

During a crisis, national and local officials will provide strict guidelines that may impact daily life. How you communicate these changes to your child is critical. Plan ahead to select the words or visuals that convey the necessary information in a reassuring way. For an individual on the spectrum, details may be better left unsaid – make essential points without overemphasizing actions that may promote unhealthy fixations or difficulties later. Handwashing in normal times can be a difficult enough. Adding fun, rather than fear to the process is a far better strategy.

Stay Connected

As always in times of emergency, establish nearby supports should you need them. With social distancing recommendations in place, it is still good to know that family or friends are available to help in a timely way, especially if someone in the family needs to visit the doctor. Daily check-ins with those close to you can also dispel the uncomfortable sense of isolation that accompany times such as these. And especially remember that your child’s teacher is your very own mentor for answering questions, providing instructional ideas and supports, and helping to alleviate your concerns. Having this full “resource group” will create a support system for you and your child.

Rule by Routine

Routine is a well-known cornerstone of comfort for individuals with autism. Stay as consistent with your student’s schedule as possible by maintaining the same bedtime and wake-up routine, preparing meals at expected times and keeping school hours, shortened accordingly. Staying on schedule and creating new opportunities to learn and grow will help to pave the way for the return to school.

About Dr. Sautter

Dr. Sautter has been with the Y.A.L.E. School since 2007. She earned her Ph.D. in applied behavior analysis from Western Michigan University and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA-D). Dr. Sautter has conducted several research studies and her work has been published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals and books.

With more than 16 years of experience in the field of developmental disabilities, Dr. Sautter has worked as a behavioral therapist for children with a diagnosis of autism both at home and in public school settings. Dr. Sautter has also taught at Western Michigan University and served as a practicum supervisor for graduate and undergraduate students completing behavior analytic fieldwork.


Welcome to our Virtual Classroom

Teacher Erin Healy from our Philadelphia campus went above and beyond for her students and their parents by creating an amazing “virtual classroom” to help keep daily activities and assignments as organized and streamlined as possible during remote learning. Take a tour in the video below.