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As schools around the world prepare for learning to continue in the fall, educators and service providers are wondering how to best tackle the possibility or reality of virtual learning for the foreseeable future. Many educators are concerned about the steep learning curve that comes with teletherapy and wonder how they might most effectively reach their students. For special education teachers and therapists for students with autism, teletherapy presents a unique challenge as many learning platforms are only geared towards typically developing students.
Yet, the benefits of online learning and teletherapy for students with autism can be huge. For instance, users of PresenceLearning, a teletherapy program, has found that teletherapy has been especially beneficial for students with autism, as they “sometimes have difficulty connecting directly with people.”* Online learning and teletherapy can provide more one-on-one opportunities for students with autism and allows for flexible scheduling. Additionally, teletherapy can reduce the stigma that is sometimes associated with students having to leave the classroom to receive related services. And, in many instances, teletherapy can be more cost efficient because resources such as therapists and curriculum can be shared among different schools and school districts.
In order to support educators and service providers of students with autism, we have curated a list of ten best practices for teletherapy with the hope that this information will provide teachers and related service providers with the tools to successfully engage with students with autism virtually.
1. Limit Distractions
Many students with autism are easily captivated by sensory-rich environments, so it is important to limit any and all distractions. This means to make sure that you are holding teletherapy in a space that is quiet and is relatively calming. Consider the colors in the room, as extremely bright colors can be distracting for students with autism. Additionally, avoid wearing shiny or loud jewelry during a teletherapy session. This way, you will be more likely to engage your student and get their full attention during the teletherapy session.
2. Get to know your students’ likes and dislikes
As teachers and related service providers for students with autism, it is likely a no-brainer to learn your students’ likes and dislikes. However, in the teletherapy environment this is equally as important as it is in the face-to-face environment. By learning your students’ preferences, you are then able to use this information to your advantage in the teletherapy session. Objects that a student likes may be used as a motivator or reinforcer and can be a part of a reward system that motivates them to maintain attention during the teletherapy session. This also helps you as a teacher or related service provider, to make the information more relatable and accessible for students with autism.
3. Remove items that are highly preferred or triggering
Just as you should ensure you know your students’ likes and dislikes, you should make sure that items your student finds appealing are only out when used as a part of a reward system, not for the duration of the session. This encourages a student’s full participation and engagement with the lesson at hand, as opposed to a specific preferred object. It also prevents a student from getting derailed during a teletherapy session by an object that could be potentially triggering. Some teletherapy platforms have “stickers” or brief videos that you can choose ahead of time based on what the student you are working with likes.
4. Make sure you have good Wi-Fi
With technology, there is bound to be some issues. However, one way to be proactive is to ensure that you are in a location where you have good Wi-Fi. Whether it is through an ethernet cord or a hotspot, make sure that your Wi-Fi is strong to avoid disconnecting from your student during a teletherapy session or causing your session to be interrupted due to loading issues.
5. Use a stand for your computer
Socialization is imperative for students with autism. Thus, it is extremely important to ensure that students are able to see your facial expressions and make eye contact. Doing so allows them to practice some of the key skills in socialization, like recognizing emotions and responding appropriately. One thing you can do to help with this is to utilize a stand for your computer, that allows the webcam to be at eye level. Computer stands can also help to prevent neck strain throughout the day. While there are many different stands available online that you can buy, a good set of books can do the trick too!
6. Be mindful of lighting
Lighting can play a huge part in the success of your teletherapy session. When choosing where to hold your teletherapy session, try to avoid sunlit windows behind you. If this is not possible, be sure to utilize a ring light so that your student can see you throughout the teletherapy session.
7. Invest in a quality webcam and headset
It is imperative to ensure you have a high-quality webcam and headset when engaging in online learning or teletherapy. Many computers come with a built-in webcam, but if yours does not, be sure to do your research and find one that allows your student to see you clearly! Doing so will prevent both you and your student from getting distracted or frustrated during the online learning session. Additionally, while many computers do not come with an attached headset, quality headsets are relatively easy to find, and for reasonable prices. Investing in a good webcam and headset will make the teletherapy session go smoother and will help you clearly communicate with your student. Pro tip: utilize a noise-cancelling headset to eliminate any and all background noise for the most engaged virtual learning experience.
8. Make your space personal
Just because many of us are no longer in our physical classrooms or learning environments, does not mean that our virtual learning environment has to lack personality! Take advantage of working from home and make your space personal and comfortable. Try to include pictures of your family and friends in your workspace, or even art pieces or notes from students and colleagues. Doing so invites your student with autism into your space and allows them to get to know you more personally, thereby encouraging a healthy virtual relationship!
9. Practice makes perfect
So that you can ensure your teletherapy or online learning session runs smoothly, take some extra time to practice first with a family member or friend. This will allow you to troubleshoot any inevitable technological issues that may arise. Practicing will also help you get a better idea of what works best for you as the educator or service provider in terms of your environment, instructional materials, and learning tools.
10. Be patient
Finally, and probably most importantly, be patient! Enjoy the process of learning how to adapt to a new normal, and the benefits that may arise as a result. Teletherapy and online learning can be a unique challenge for teachers and related service providers alike, and it will be normal to come across a few issues. However, give yourself grace and trust the process!
*Sherri Coats, BYNG Public Schools, PresenceLearning Testimonial
Madeline Burroughs is a Specially Designed Instructional Coach at two high schools in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, GA. In this role, she works to coach special education teachers in providing systematic, specially designed instruction that effectively targets students’ strengths and needs. Madeline received her Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education in May 2019, and hopes to continue to serve as an advocate for all students with disabilities throughout her career.