For students with autism, remote learning is particularly challenging. Here’s how children and parents are adjusting.

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Roman Salamon participating in a virtual speech therapy session. (Courtesy photo)

Roman Salamon participating in a virtual speech therapy session. (Courtesy photo)

Jennifer Salamon’s son Roman attends the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh Day School where he’s about to start eighth grade. Roman, who has autism and an intellectual disability, has had a mostly positive experience with remote learning during the pandemic.

“A lot of his goals and what he does in school are everyday skills as far as learning how to do dishes, doing laundry, identifying very basic things like clothing,” Salamon said.

Each day, Roman has two 30-minute video sessions with his occupational therapist and speech therapist. While the transition has been fairly smooth, he’s also isolated from much of the personal interactions he’d have at school.

“I am concerned only because he does like to be out, and he does like to be around other children,'' said Salamon, who is director of communications at Autism Connection of Pennsylvania. “Thirty minutes to an hour a day of school at home isn’t the same as him being at school for a full day.”

The pandemic has exposed the challenges of shifting abruptly to remote education for students across the country. For children with autism and their parents, the challenges have been even more pronounced.

As plans for the fall are being designed by school districts in the Pittsburgh region, PublicSource spoke with parents and care providers about the struggles and unforeseen advantages of remote learning for kids on the autism spectrum. 

Obstacles of remote learning

Amy Hart’s 11-year-old daughter Sophie attends Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Bethel Park. As a child with autism, Sophie has faced unique obstacles with remote learning. 

Sophie has been working remotely on packets sent home from the school and following a reading program with repetitive word recognition through books and flashcards called the Edmark reading series. The issue Sophie has been having, according to her mom, is she specifically likes the way her teacher at school teaches, together with other personal interactions she has at school — she’ll wave hi, bye, blow a kiss before leaving the room. 

Sophie Hart enjoys being around classmates, something that has not been possible during remote learning. (Courtesy photo)

Sophie Hart enjoys being around classmates, something that has not been possible during remote learning. (Courtesy photo)

“She needs it to be done in person, and that’s the problem,” Hart said.

Remote learning was a hard adjustment for Sophie because she enjoyed going to school and being around her friends. Hart has also been teaching three students from 7 until 10 a.m. two days each week for Therapy Source.

“I have a bachelor’s in elementary education and special education, master’s with a certification as a reading specialist and autism certification, and everyone would think I am so prepared, and it doesn’t work,” Hart said.

The Bethel Park Board of School Directors approved the district’s phased reopening plan on on July 28, which calls for some in-person learning to start on Aug. 26.

State officials released and updated recommendations for Pre-K-12 schools to guide their plans to reopen, and Pittsburgh Public Schools voted last week to hold the first nine weeks of class remotely. In the spring, parents were frustrated by the district's handling of remote learning in and some are worried about similar problems when classes resume. 

The Children’s Institute will begin the school year Aug. 19 with a hybrid model of in-person and remote sessions, and parents can choose what works for their child.

More support for children with autism

Jamie Upshaw is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Autism Urban Connections Inc. which began its operations in 2015. Upshaw, who is Black, explains there "no support services being offered from people who look like me.” 

Since the pandemic, the support group has switched to virtual support. Autism Urban Connections offers support, education, training, advocacy, and resources to families of those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder and related disorders. “We work on anything that makes the family whole,” Upshaw said.

If remote learning continues, she plans to have as many assistant services as possible. Her goal is to “understand all of the children’s school platforms to better assist every child in order to give them the appropriate care and service.”

Since the pandemic, Upshaw has been sending families home with care packages. Some things included in the care package include a number of essentials ranging from toilet paper, diapers, and family-friendly activities. 

“When you have children with special needs, the family is usually pretty close-knit because that’s the need, and that is why my services are geared towards family,” Upshaw said.

Jamie Upshaw is the executive director of Autism Urban Connections, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on services for the Black community. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Jamie Upshaw is the executive director of Autism Urban Connections, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on services for the Black community. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pros and cons of remote sessions

Andrea Castro works while her 5-year-old daughter Nai has been learning from home. Nai, who is hearing impaired and autistic, attends the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and has had a mostly positive experience learning remotely and working with an outside therapist.

When Allegheny County had transitioned to the green phase, Castro had to be thoughtful about taking Nai to in-person therapy sessions. 

“One of her therapists started doing in-person visits, so we have had to take it very slowly because she is very sensitive and has separation anxiety,” Castro said.

Rachel Leaman, Nai’s therapist, had been working for Southwestern Human Services, where she provided therapeutic support for behavioral health rehabilitative services. With a recent increase in local COVID-19 cases, Nai is no longer able to attend in-person sessions. But at the park, Nai and Leaman had been meeting for her therapy session to work on improving her communication through sign language. 

When we are at the park she says ‘swings’ in sign language. Instead, we want her to say she ‘wants to swing’ in sign language,” Leaman said in late June.

Leaman spoke about the importance of in-person connection and how it took Nai some time to warm back up to her since the pandemic began. 

“It’s harder to convey what you need over the computer than rather in-person,” Leaman said. 

Remote therapy can also have benefits, according to Leslie Paat, clinical manager at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh. Being home means you get to see children in a natural environment where they are most comfortable, which in some cases can help with assessment care. It can also enable more frequent sessions, which she said was beneficial with one of her clients at the Day School. 

“I was able to evaluate this little guy and then immediately start ongoing care, with me providing the care the next week and that really helps in building that relationship,” Paat said.

Veonna King is an intern at PublicSource. She can be reached at veonna@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Mitra Nourbakhsh.

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