Optimising the online learning experience of autistic students

Autism is a spectrum condition with wide-ranging symptoms, presentations, and needs. When behaviours are dubbed ‘normal’ the response is often ‘what’s ‘normal’?’. Yet anyone whose behaviour is considered unusual, not normal, can be called autistic with no sense of irony. This ‘one term fits all’ often morphs into ‘one approach fits all’.

Tip one: Awareness for educators

So many locks; not enough keys.

Autistic individuals are often ‘bottom-up’ thinkers (‘can’t see the wood for the trees’). This cognitive process affects problem solving, decision making, and knowledge assimilation.

Speech patterns, verbal and written, may be rambling as thoughts are gathered and facts are disseminated. Very focussed online comments to elicit information and respond to questions may seem blunt, even rude and are common criticisms of the communication style. Anger or humour may mask feelings; coupled with deep fear of rejection, it’s a no-win situation.

Awareness of specific, individual approaches to learning are essential aspects of inclusive online course design and delivery.

Tip two: Complex sentences add to confusion

Words and meanings blur and conflate.

Individuals on the spectrum are likely to take literal meaning from instructions. Consider the following sentence:

To help your Mentor make the most of their allocated time please post your questions in the comments section of the Help Area step at the end of the week to which your question relates.

This complex sentence – five parts, without punctuation – I took to mean that I should post questions ‘at the end of the week’. Now I think that it refers to location rather than time. But I’m still not sure. This confusion is especially relevant when reading and also when completing tasks. An estimated time for completion may in reality be the time it takes to understand what is required. A 20-minute online search may take twice that to sift through a plethora of lists and side-questions and links.

Tip three: Limit sensory information

Making sense of confusion is exhausting.

Complex sensory issues – sensitivity to light, sudden, loud noise, or unexpected movement -can be common features of autism. Advance warning of upcoming soundtracks or moving images would be very welcome as sensory overload can lead to a shutdown of hours or even days.

Tip four:  Engage the individual

Masks can be the only reality, sometimes.

Bullying and abuse are common backstories resulting in vulnerability and apprehension around social interaction. Ask about individual triggers so that alerts can be given.

Tip five: Plan for time-out

Repetitive behaviours (‘stimming’, e.g. hand-flapping, rocking, hard blinking, or manipulating a fidget toy) during video conferencing are coping mechanisms, and signs of stress. Educators need to be able to recognise these, with an agreed understanding that all participants are free to take time out in place.

Being autistic is a lifelong gig. Attempting to assimilate into a generic system impacts severely on mental health and wellbeing. In breaking through formulaic barriers, adapting, monitoring, and determining individual need, educators demonstrate an appreciation for and validation of autistic learners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s