Autism and Online Learning: A Guide for Teachers

Posted on April 05, 2013

Today, one in every 88 American children is on the autism spectrum. Autism affects more than 2 million people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. But it hasn't always been this way. Statistics show a tenfold increase in autism in the past 40 years, and prevalence rates are increasing 10%-17% each year.

With autism on the rise, many schools struggle to meet the needs of autistic students. Often, autistic adults do not take the next step to go on to college or meaningful employment, even though they may be incredibly gifted. Letting students fall behind should not be an option.

If traditional classrooms struggle to effectively educate autistic students, what can online education offer autistic learners? Tech tools and virtual learning environments present an opportunity to better serve autistic students with flexibility and resources that are well suited to guide them in learning. The more educators learn about working with autistic students, the better equipped teachers and students will be for success.

The Needs of Autistic Students

Autism represents a broad spectrum of students, from high-functioning individuals to those with significant disability. "You've got some kids who are brilliant in one area and can't work at all in another area. There's really a range," explains autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy. Each autistic individual is unique with their own set of needs, making it difficult for some educational programs to reach every student. But there are common characteristics that online educators should be aware of and work with, including anxiety and difficulties with attention, communication, and social interaction, as well as a need for multiple learning styles.

Strong feelings of anxiety are common among those with autism or Asperger syndrome. Researchers have found that more than 80% of children with autism have at least one anxiety disorder, and many young adults with Asperger syndrome feel intense anxiety, some to a point that requires treatment. Bullying, being put on the spot, time limits, and win-lose situations can be a source of anxiety for autistic students.

Communication abilities will vary among individual students, but all people with autism experience language and communication difficulties of some kind. Teaching Students With Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools identifies common language difficulties among autistic students, including a lack of eye contact, unusual gestures, a lack of expressive language skills, and a difficulty in changing topics.

Social interaction for autistic students can be a challenge, which makes it difficult for these individuals to participate in class discussions. Teaching Students With Autism explains that people with autism have difficulty reading body language and may not pick up on important social cues. They also typically have trouble understanding the perspectives of others.

Attention difficulties are also common among autistic students. They may find it difficult to give their attention to important concepts, instead focusing on insignificant details. A short attention span, and difficulty shifting attention from one stimulus to the next is also common.

Autistic students often need to be presented with a variety of learning styles. Stephen Edelson of the Autism Research Institute explains, "It appears that autistic individuals are more likely to rely on only one style of learning." That means autism educators will need to offer multiple learning styles — visual, auditory, and hands-on — to discover the method that works best for each student.

Success for Autistic Students Online

The benefits of online education can be life-changing for autistic students. One 17-year-old with autism, Daniel, found success participating in massive open online courses (MOOCs) with Coursera. Daniel took a modern poetry class from Penn, thriving in the exclusively online format. He and his parents discovered that the online learning system worked well with his social skills and attention deficit, and the rigorous academic curriculum required him to stay on task. Says Daniel, "I can't yet sit still in a classroom, so [Coursera's online offering] was my first real course ever. During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world."

College student Ryan Fox has experienced similar success in online learning. For Fox, high school was distracting and stressful. He had trouble keeping up with teachers and had to start his school day all over again when he got home, relearning all of the information he didn't understand or hear the first time around. But when Fox was introduced to an online learning environment, it made him feel "very organized, calm, and safe." With online learning, he was able to find order and correctness, and knew what to expect, with no surprises and limited changes.

Where Fox struggled in traditional school, he thrives online. He's able to get his schoolwork done quickly and needs almost no accommodations. Says Fox, "When I was really little, I was curious and loved to learn, but then for a while I got so frustrated I forgot what that was like. I think any student who has certain needs and wants to rediscover his or her love of learning should try online learning. I really believe that in the future everyone will learn this way! We will all be able to learn from the very smartest people on Earth, and we will do it at our own pace every day. Our abilities will matter more than our disabilities."

How the Online Environment Helps Autistic Learners

Online learning can be a good idea for students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism. "For these students, open-ended time limits, the ability to repeat activities over and over again, and other modifications could be quite helpful," says Misty Jones, Board-Certified Behavior Analyst with Kids First Spectrum Services.

Studying online can remove elements of anxiety for autistic students. Although cyberbullying exists, online learning tools may allow autistic students to study without fear of negative interaction. The digital environment also offers the opportunity to remove anxiety triggers like being put on the spot and working within time constraints.

Autistic students can benefit from focused communication available in the online learning format. Many struggle to learn in a classroom environment where most communication is verbal. Online, autistic learners can benefit from visual tools, cues, and guided notes, as well as interactive and scenario-based learning. Autistic adult learners may also be more comfortable communicating online, especially through social media.

Online learning is also useful for catering to the social needs of autistic students. Communication is often more black and white, with limited social cues, and a lack of non-verbal communication that can be difficult to understand. Additionally, the typical discussion board format takes away students' pressure to respond immediately.

Educators can support autistic students' attention needs with clear, guided online instruction. In the online format, autistic students who may struggle with short attention spans and misplaced focus can be carefully walked through concepts in a step-by-step guide that emphasizes the most important information.

The online learning environment also offers the ability to teach the same material in multiple ways for a variety of students. As autistic learners typically benefit from learning in one specific style, each lesson should be available in multiple formats to allow students to choose the learning method that they can use best, whether they're visual, auditory, or hands on. This is difficult in the traditional classroom but possible online. Educators can offer lectures in audio or video, written text, or even in step-by-step interactive guides, all in one learning hub.

Additional benefits of online learning for autistic students include the ability to repeat learning materials and interactive elements over and over, flexible course offerings for students with "splinter skills," and open time limits. Autistic students also appreciate the consistent format of online learning, as it can be difficult to deal with small differences in each individual classroom.

There are many benefits to online learning for autistic students, but there can also be challenges. The online environment is so appealing to the autistic brain that some students struggle with cyber addiction, creating an unhealthy imbalance. Additionally, autistic students who need to develop in-person social interaction and appropriate behavior will not find many opportunities online. "Most of our students need so much real life practice to develop skills that the Internet is more of a leisure activity. It's supplemental to what they are learning in vivo," says behavior analyst Jones.

Recommendations for Online Teachers with Autistic Students

  • Make use of discussion boards: Being put on the spot can make autistic students feel anxious. But online course discussion boards give them the opportunity to create a planned and well-crafted response. Avoid live chats or group Skype discussions that may cause autistic students to freeze up.
  • Help students build their responses: A great way to improve online participation among autistic students is through planned, guided discussion. Autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy recommends that online educators "have the conversation ahead of time, and prep them, and actually have them go through and prepare. ... Give them a lot of time and a lot of extra prep before the event itself." An online tool with question prompts that allows students to build responses for later discussion may be helpful.
  • Allow students to try again and again: Autistic students may need to take extra time to process information and complete tasks. They may even need to do activities more than once to understand the concept and focus. You can cater to this need by offering learning materials without limits on time or turns.
  • Carefully monitor for cyberbullying: The online learning environment can make autistic students feel safe, but bullying may bring up feelings of anxiety. Preventing cyberbullying can make all students feel more comfortable and open in online learning.
  • Allow students to pick and choose courses: Autistic students with splinter skills may do well in math but struggle with writing. Rather than restricting students to freshman- or senior-level courses across the board, give students the opportunity to pick the right course level for their skills.
  • Offer multiple learning formats: Encourage autistic students to adopt the learning style that works best for them by providing students with materials that fit different learning styles. Lectures may be delivered in audio/visual format or interactive walk-throughs, as well as in text documents.
  • Guide students on a learning path: Give students the freedom to spend as much time as they need, try tasks multiple times, and allow them to do it all in a variety of different formats, but remember to guide their learning at all times. Keep their focus and attention by always showing them the next step to take.

Online learning for autistic students is largely still in development, but there's growing potential, especially at the high school and college level. "So much of what goes on in high school is not about learning academics but about fitting in with other kids. If that is what's standing in the way of a young person finishing school or excelling academically, then online is the way to go," says Jones. "For those individuals who could go to college if it weren't for the social aspect, it is a great way for them to get an education."

What's next? Dictation tools, resources for turning ideas into outlines, and even exclusive online degree programs for autistic students. Says Lisa Jo Rudy, "A lot of those types of support can be built into virtual learning environments, and probably will be, because they're not only useful for students with autism, but for any student."