Essentials for Autism & Virtual Learning

This post is all about essentials for autism and virtual learning. Be aware! Virtual visual strategies are different from in-person visuals.

For students with autism, virtual learning and in person learning are not the same. How the upcoming school year will unfold remains a mystery for many.

But the potential for requiring virtual learning or bouncing back and forth between remote and in-person settings remains a possibility during the upcoming school year.

So how do you help students?

Giving students information is an important goal. That’s why we use schedules. It’s funny, but sometimes the adults forget the real purpose of the schedule.

The value of using the schedule is that students benefit when we give them information so they can feel more “grounded” in their daily activities. They feel more secure when they know what is going to happen.

The Covid 19 problem

When Covid 19 created sudden changes in school attendance, virtual learning sessions were set up almost overnight. Those changes were extremely difficult for everyone - students, parents and teachers.

One reason so many families suffered during that period of remote learning is that those precious schedules did not transition into the virtual home learning setting.

My Facebook feed was overflowing with S.O.S. posts from parents who were struggling because their children with autism were struggling. No schedule was a huge missing piece.

The solution contains a schedule

For more than 40 years I’ve been “preaching” that using visual schedules provides one of the greatest returns for your effort when setting up a smoothly running classroom. Students in remote learning situations need that same information.

It’s easy to assume students know their schedules and routines. In reality they frequently don’t, or they don’t remember, or they forget, or are not sure, or they don’t want to do what they are supposed to be doing, or they get distracted. When they are thrust into a different location for learning, disorientation is a possibility.

Using a schedule transcends both virtual and in-person situations, but there are differences in what they look like and how to use them. Let’s explore that.

What information is on the schedule in the classroom?

Typically, the classroom schedule covers the activities for the whole day.  The amount of detail in the schedule may vary depending on the student’s age and ability to understand.

The classroom schedule gives the student information such as:

  • What is happening today (regular activities)
  • What is happening today (something new, different, unusual)
  • What is not happening today
  • What is the sequence of events?
  • What is changing that I normally expect
  • When it’s time to stop one activity and move on to another one

Classrooms also use Mini-Schedules to highlight a sequence of activities during a shorter learning time.  For example, a Work Time might include 3 or 4 tasks and a Mini-Schedule would guide the student through those tasks.

What information is on the schedule in the virtual setting?

Here are some questions to answer.

  • How long each day will the student be connected to the teacher in the virtual setting?
  • How many activity changes will occur during a virtual session?
  • Will the student need to engage in learning activities beyond the time he is virtually connected with the teacher?
  • Does the schedule need to address just the time that the student is connected with the teacher virtually or should it include the learning time not connected with the teacher live?
  • Should the schedule just include the specific school learning time, or is it best for the student to have a whole day schedule that includes his specific “school time” with the teacher and independent learning?

It can be important for teachers and parents to work together to answer these questions to determine the best solution for individual students and families.

(Note:  The posts that went through my Facebook feed revealed that the families who used a schedule at home during quarantine faired much better than those who did not.)

Visual images in the classroom

Considerations for the classroom. Pick a form of representation that is easily recognized by your students. You want them to be able to identify the items quickly and consistently.

Students will benefit more from scheduling activities if recognizing the symbols is as effortless as possible.

When creating a schedule for the whole class, choose a form that will be easily interpreted by all the students.

It is better to use a simpler format that everyone can understand, rather than make it more complex and miss connecting with part of the group.

Consider using:

  • Written words
  • Line drawings
  • Photographs
  • Signs, logos, objects

Combinations of words and some form of graphics is frequently the best choice.

Learn more about which pictures to use.

When using pictures, label them with the exact words you will use to refer to the activity. Many pictures that come from picture collections are already labeled for different purposes.

Change the words on the pictures to accurately represent what you say when you communicate with that picture. Labeling the items increases their effectiveness because:

  • Everyone will use consistent terminology when referring
  • to activities
  • Many students will learn to read the words that accompany
  • the pictures

Best practices for visual strategies

Visual images in the virtual setting

This is really important!

Pictures that a student can identify when he is holding them
in person or viewing them close up in the classroom
may not work in a virtual format.

I’ve viewed some Zoom meetings where teachers are using the same visual tools that they use in the classroom. Those 2” pictures are pretty common in the classroom.  But they were impossible (for me) to read on the computer screen.

The actual legibility depends on several things.

  • How close to the camera is the teacher holding the pictures?
  • How big are the pictures in real life?
  • What size font are the written words?  Is it a light, thin font or a darker, heavier font?
  • What size screen is the student viewing on?

I have experimented with this a bit.  I find that pictures that are at least 4” or 5” in size work better in the virtual setting.

Easy to wiggle

Not to pick on the teachers. But it is not unusual for people who are holding up pictures to move them around while holding them up. In the virtual world that makes them even more difficult to view.

Lighting is another factor

Make sure that you are in a well-lit area if you are the virtual teacher. Poor lighting will make it more difficult to see you or connect with your visual tools.

Watch laminating

Many educators have visual tools in their collection that are laminated. That is a “good news-bad news” situation. I love laminated visuals.

But here’s the problem with virtual teaching and laminating.  It all depends on your lighting.  Sometimes light can reflect on your laminated cards and create glare so you can’t see what is on the card. Just be sure to pay attention.

Decide how the student will interact with the schedule in the classroom

The students should begin each day with some form of activity giving them the opportunity to create and discuss their daily schedule.

Participating in the assembly of the schedule is important. Students internalize the information better if they actively participate, rather than just looking at something prepared by another person.

How is the schedule presented?

  • Teacher writes or assembles schedule for the class
  • Student watches and discusses with teacher
  • Student copies schedule with pencil & paper or types it into computer or electronic device
  • Student assembles own picture schedule copying
  • master schedule

How will schedule preparation be handled?

  • An individual activity
  • A group activity

Remember, having the student participate in the assembly of the schedule in some way is a critical part in helping him orient to the activities of the day.

How will the schedule be used throughout the day?

It’s frequently helpful to develop a routine to transition from one activity to the next.

  • Cross off or check off what was completed
  • Turn the picture over
  • Take the completed item off the chart
  • Identify next activity

The way this activity is handled will depend on student age and ability to understand, but active participation is one of the most valuable elements of using a schedule system.

Decide how the student will interact with the schedule in the virtual classroom

  • Will the student be attending the virtual school room independently or in a group?
  • Will the student have scheduling materials in their possession to manipulate? Or will the only scheduling materials be on the screen?
  • Can some of the in-person classroom schedule routines be replicated in the virtual setting?
  • Is the care giver at home able to follow up with the rest of the schedule beyond the virtual time?

The more similar the routines are between in-person and virtual, the easier it may be for the student to transition between environments as needed.

How to use the schedule

Just remember, integrating the schedule into the flow of daily activity will maximize its value.

Students with special learning needs like autism benefit from the structure provided by using a schedule. So, when you are dealing with autism and virtual learning – don’t forget the schedule.

Visual strategies are still really important in the virtual world. Don't forget the schedule is an essential for autism and virtual learning.

Here's more help for creating the best visual strategies for student success.

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  1. I LOVE the article on the need for schedules in a virtual school setting. I think this is one of your most important articles for parents and teachers to read~today.

    They are all in chaos now with the changes to virtual learning. It’s a major change.

    What is great is that you have the comparison of the two types which will refresh the basic need for schedules for parents and bringing up the necessity of how they are different in that the caregiver may have shared responsibilities to complete part of it on their end in order for success in completing the schedule. I’m thinking reward snack etc, making sure the pencils; books are available and setting the timer etc. having a “desk/work area” set.

    I also liked how important it is for the size of the visual to perhaps change to larger and the “wiggling of the pic “ factor on the virtual teachers end. These are all things thought out that would not typically come to mind for parents or teachers or those new to visuals and especially virtual learning.

    Parents can’t just create a visual schedule. They have to make sure the child is set up and prepared for success something teachers do in school that has to be done at home now.

    Your article is for everyone! My daughter, a teacher has 3 children. They are on virtual learning as she is on teaching. A new world for all of them.

    They each have work areas and all that’s needed for “school” including a set time for school and breakfast etc. She has created schedules with them on what’s to be done each day on their end including having them meet with their Dad after his work at 4:00 to show him what they did for the day.

    She is busy with her 150 (hopefully to change) students and without schedules for her typical kids it would be chaos at home so the virtual schedules are for everyone.

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