Online Education & Autism | Organization for Autism Research

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On March 13, 2020, coincidentally a Friday the Thirteenth, many public schools, colleges, and universities decided to rapidly transition from classroom to online teaching. The novel coronavirus of 2019 (COVID-19) forced educators to adopt technologies and pedagogies they might have otherwise resisted. We were all teaching online courses: the experienced advocates of digital learning and the skeptical traditionalists.

Teaching online always presents challenges. Having taught online since 2004, I know students will forget to check their email accounts. They will overlook the online calendars provided. They most certainly will miss assignment deadlines. Instructors deal with these challenges no matter the ages, educational experiences, or social backgrounds of students. Whether teaching for a state college or a leading research university, many students in the online courses struggle.

Some autistic students struggle more online, while other excel in the virtual classroom. By recognizing the factors associated with success, we can serve autistic students and all students who find the online class format disorienting.

Why is an organized virtual classroom essential? Why does the instructor need to configure calendars and notification systems? Because most young people struggle with executive functions. Those struggles are more pronounced for neurodiverse individuals.

Autism, ADHD, trauma, anxiety, and many other neurological differences impair executive functions of the brain. Executive functions include time management, problem analysis, and self-regulation. In the same way an executive manages a team, the left-frontal lobe of the brain manages our responses to situations.

To compensate for impaired executive function, many autistics learn to rely on calendars, reminders, to-do lists, and other planning tools. Online, these tools are easily accessible. I was an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, which replaced Day Runner portfolios. Today, an iPhone keeps me on schedule and organized.

The learning management system (LMS) adopted by a school or teacher should enable and encourage effective organization of content and clear communication with students. Popular LMS platforms include Google Classroom, Moodle, Blackboard and Brightspace (“Desire2Learn”). I have used each of these, and a few others.

When designing an online course, first consider the organization model that logically complements the course content. Do you organize by topical units or by week of the semester? Do you organize by the type of content being delivered to students? I organize some classes both by week and by content type. For example, I place all homework in an “Assignments” folder and then I link to each assignment from within “Weekly Content” folders. I tell students they can look for any assignment in one master folder, or they can locate all content for a given week in a folder. Yes, it takes me a little extra time to create links from the weekly folders back to the original materials, but since adopting this “two location” approach, fewer students ask how to find materials. Links might also be called aliases or shortcuts in an LMS.

Next, I make sure the course calendar is active and displayed on the first page of the class. When assigning readings or homework, I ensure the due dates appear on that calendar. Do not assume students know how to use online calendars. Provide links to any online help for the LMS calendar.

Every LMS I’ve used also features notifications, alerts, and announcements. Be sure these messages appear on the first page, too. Some LMS platforms allow teacher to set defaults for the announcements. I enable email and text messages for due dates and announcements. Students might turn off the notifications, but I have discovered most students don’t enable reminders if I don’t do that for them.

Place your campus email, chat, and video call information on the front page for a course. I use Google Chat and Google Meet in my courses, so students can contact me without calling my personal phone number.

Throughout the design and implementation of online courses, consult the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Instructors might be reminded that courses need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; Sections 504 and 508 the Rehabilitation Act; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; and many other regulatory mandates such as Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. The WCAG checklist makes compliance with accessibility standards straightforward, if not easy.

When you start creating content and assignments, avoid creative temptations. Colors need to be easy to read. Do not color code items, unless you also include text. Following the WCAG, remember that some people are colorblind. Ideally, your LMS should allow students to customize the rendering of pages to their needs.

The rushed transitions from campus to cyberspace led to poor course designs. Overwhelmed instructors might not have emailed all students or configured email and calendar announcements within their online classes. Meanwhile, some institutions sent too many emails and text alerts, causing students to stop reading the messages they received.

I wish every educator had been trained for online course design and theory. Hopefully, we learn from this experience and are prepared for future online teaching.


About the Author
Christopher Scott Wyatt began blogging as The Autistic Me in 2007, at the age of 39. Wyatt avoided becoming an autistic self-advocate until he realized things had not improved significantly since his childhood. Blogging led to invitations to appear at regional and national conferences. Wyatt also provides training to schools on how to better accommodate students on the autism spectrum. Along with his wife, Susan, he also frankly discusses relationships and parenting. The couple lives in Central Texas with their two young daughters.  

Check out Wyatt’s blog here, his Facebook here, and his Twitter here.


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