Inclusion from a Distance: 12 Ideas for Supporting Students with Autism in Virtual Classrooms
Creative supports are key to helping learners succeed in distance education. Try these 12 ideas to help students on the spectrum feel connected, stay engaged, and learn effectively in the virtual classroom and beyond.
For students on the autism spectrum, some aspects of virtual learning may be easier than face-to-face instruction — for example, the home learning environment may be more comfortable than the physical classroom. Other aspects, however, may be more challenging. Some students are struggling to learn without the support of peers. Others are missing the structure of the daily in-school routine.
Try these 12 ideas to help students on the spectrum feel connected, stay engaged, and learn effectively in the virtual classroom and beyond.
1. Provide sensory support
Do your students need adapted seating? Handheld fidgets? A calming jar? These types of sensory tools are commonly found in physical classrooms and must be provided in virtual spaces as well. Work with your school’s occupational therapist to give students the support they need when they are learning at home.
Students who needed sensory supports in face-to-face instruction may still need many of those same supports when they are learning from home.
Work with your school’s occupational therapist to create at-home sensory spaces and tools for these learners. Start by identifying items that will need to be mailed or dropped off for students. If a middle school student does his best work as he sits on a wobble stool or a kindergartner is missing their classroom’s “reading tent”, these are items that — in some cases — may be packaged up and sent home for the duration of virtual learning.
In other instances, sensory items can be created by therapists, teachers, and families. A DIY fidget box, for instance, might consist of flexible straws, novelty pencils, hair ties, balloons filled with sand or water beads, Playdough, and Velcro strips. Adapted seating options in the home might include yoga mats, blankets, and lounge pillows.
You can also take your sensory support online and offer a virtual sensory space that students can browse for inspiration or direction. Online spaces can feature calming visuals, meditations, ideas for brain breaks, and more. Visit Virtual Calm Corner to see an example.
2. Build great slideshows
Slideshows are the centerpiece of lessons in virtual classrooms. They need to be engaging and accessible for a wide range of learners. Make sure your font style and size are easy to read and add visuals (e.g., diagrams, photos, cartoons) to presentations to make them appealing to all.
Virtual lessons depend heavily on slideshow presentations. Be sure to review your slides regularly to ensure they are easy to follow and accessible for all learners. Specifically, make sure the content is easy to read. Set your font at a size of at least 24 points, and choose only sans-serif fonts, such as Arial and Verdana, for simplicity.
It’s also important to pay attention to the balance of text to visuals. In general, it’s best to use short phrases instead of full sentences to avoid crowding your slides. To support English language learners and students with disabilities, supplement text with relevant pictures, film clips, gifs, or comics that illustrate key concepts.
Finally, use plenty of high-quality images. Choose pictures that reinforce the concept presented and help students understand the material. It was not so long ago that educators could only choose from a few clipart images to support key points. Today, there are free visuals available everywhere! Search for images on Pixabay or Unspash or use the icons available to PowerPoint or Google Slides users.
3. Partner with paraprofessionals
In face-to-face learning, paraprofessionals are often critical to the success of an inclusive classroom. The same can be said of virtual education. If you have paraprofessionals on your team, consider all the ways in which they can support students, teachers, and learning experiences.
If you have paraprofessionals on your team, think creatively about how to use their skills to support students and classrooms. In the virtual inclusive classroom, paraprofessionals can sign into lessons and support learning in many of the same ways they once did in physical classrooms.
They can co-teach at times (e.g., model a breathing strategy as the teacher is explaining it; role play a scene from a novel with the teacher), use the chat box to message students who need clarification on key points, or offer guidance to one or more learners during breakout sessions and collaborative work time. In some instances, it may even be appropriate for paraprofessionals to lead the classroom in a mini lesson (e.g., leading circle time, playing a game of Kahoot!) to allow the teacher time to check in with individual students or manage challenging situations.
Paraprofessionals may also be helpful in providing students with individual check-in supports. Some students will need a morning check in to review the events of the day. Others will need a check in at the day’s end to ask questions and discuss homework. Check ins can also provide students opportunities to practice skills (e.g., organizing materials) with some adult supervision.
4. Record your lessons
Well-crafted instructional videos may not replicate the experience of sharing a physical classroom, but they can help students feel more connected to teachers and boost learning at the same time.
Even before the pandemic hit, teacher-created videos (e.g., read alouds, mini-lessons) were being used in inclusive classrooms to supplement in-class learning experiences and textbooks. These videos often help students with disabilities, but they can also boost comprehension for other students and may be especially helpful for those who may need alternatives to auditory input (CAST, 2018).
One of the most impressive benefits of making videos is that they work well in any type of classroom. In face-to-face instruction they can be used at a station or center or to provide individual skill practice or concept review. They can also be used to “flip” instruction and provide students with more opportunities to receive individual guidance during a given class period. In a hybrid or virtual setting, videos can be used in some of these same ways and serve an additional function of connecting students to the teacher and providing a bridge from school to home.
Teacher-created videos can be especially powerful for students on the spectrum who enjoy repetition. For some learners, watching a video once is enough, but for others, watching multiple times will be necessary or otherwise helpful (Suskind, 2014).
- CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2.
- Suskind, R. (2014). Life, animated: A story of sidekicks, heroes, and autism. Kingswell.
5. Accommodate them
Student accommodations need to be reexamined in the virtual classroom. Some remain unchanged when learning moves online, but others will need revisions. Work with students and their families to determine if supports from face-to-face instruction are still required and if any new accommodations will be needed.
When students move into virtual classrooms, their accommodations need to be reevaluated. There may be some supports that are no longer needed in this new context. For instance, some students who previously needed access to noise-cancelling headphones across the school day, may no longer need this support when they are learning from home.
There are many other supports, however, that likely will remain unchanged. Those who required an end-of-the-day check-in from a teacher or paraprofessional, will likely still need that accommodation in virtual learning and those who need many breaks to get through a day of instruction, will likely still need reminders to move, opportunities to engage in a preferred activity, and scheduled time away from classroom tasks.
Students may also need new accommodations to benefit from instruction in their virtual classrooms. Accommodations specific to virtual learning might include allowing students to observe and listen in breakout rooms (vs. actively participate), giving them a choice of having their camera on or off during lessons; and letting them sign off during asynchronous work time.
6. Give your students choices
What do you want to read? What type of poem do you want to write? What app do you want to use to study your sight words? What podcast interests you? Use questions like these to give students opportunities to make choices every day.
Giving choices is one easy way to make virtual education easier and more appealing to students with autism. Choices can pique student interest in a lesson, increase motivation, and prevent challenging behavior (Reutebuch, El Zein & Roberts, 2015).
Choices can be small, as in “Do you want to do your work with others in a breakout room or by yourself?” or “Do want to read or write first?”. Other choices can be more substantial, as in “What do you want to learn?”.
One tool that can be used to organize and communicate classroom choices is the tic-tac-toe board. Tic-tac-toe boards are ideal for use in the diverse, inclusive classroom because they allow every learner to study the material in a completely unique way while addressing the same unit goals or lesson objectives.
In virtual classrooms, tic-tac-toe boards can be especially useful for asynchronous learning. Allowing students to use preferred materials and tools, access resources in different ways, and express themselves using different methods may not only increase student interest in learning but boost achievement as well. Need ideas for this suggestion? Visit my Pinterest board dedicated to choice boards.
Reutebuch, C.K., El Zein, F., Roberts, G.J. (2015). A systematic review of the effects on choice on academic outcomes for students with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 20, pp. 1-16.
7. Add toys and props
Do you want to breathe some life into a dull lesson? Are you noticing that your students need a comprehension boost? Would you like to increase student engagement? If so, introduce a magic wand, a stuffed toy, or even a houseplant into virtual learning experiences!
Use toys and props to emphasize points, elicit responses from students, and add humor to lessons. A classic choice is the rubber chicken. Use it to grab the group’s attention or bring it out as an audience member during story time. Purchase a “magic wand” at the dollar store and use it to tap out the syllables in a word. Don a cape to transform into a superhero who is capable of solving any problem or decoding any word.
Realia is another tool you can use across subject areas and grade levels. Realia can help students learn vocabulary, but it can also make lessons more memorable. Using realia in virtual classrooms is not uncommon in face-to-face instruction, but objects can and should be even more of a norm in distance learning when teachers are working from home.
When a home is a classroom, many concepts can be illustrated with just a short trip into the basement or a rummage through a cupboard. Introducing the vocabulary word parka? Grab one from the closet. Teaching measurement? Illustrate gallon and pint by holding up different containers of milk. Reading about the desert? Put a cactus in front of the camera.
8. Give kids a break
Movement is a key strategy for supporting learning, boosting engagement, promoting retention of material, and preventing challenging behavior. Model movement breaks (e.g., exercises, dances, quick games) during daily instruction and introduce students to on-line resources that they can access during asynchronous learning experiences.
Students need to move. This is true during both face-to-face instruction and distance education. Consider starting your mornings with a few exercises (e.g., arm circles, jumping jacks), giving students time to pace and think about questions before a discussion, or inserting a game of charades into a vocabulary lesson.
There are endless benefits to providing movement during daily lessons. Movement boosts academic achievement, engagement, and creativity (Norris et al., 2019; Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). It can also be a preventative behavior support for students on the autism spectrum (Tarr et al., 2020).
Teachers of young children routinely add Go Noodle or YouTube dance videos to their instruction, but brain breaks are not quite as common in middle school and high school. This does not need to be the case, as there are numerous ways to give students a movement opportunity before, during, or after a learning experience.
To gain buy-in for breaks, teach students the benefits of movement. Sometimes, learners do not want to engage in a structured break with the entire class, but when they understand how a round of Simon Says or a bit of yoga can help them learn or remain focused, they may be more willing to participate.
- Norris E., van Steen T., Direito, A., & Stamatakis, E. (2019). Physically active lessons in schools and their impact on physical activity, educational, health and cognition outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54(14), 826-838.
- Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142-1152.
- Tarr, C.W., Rineer-Hershey, A., & Larwin, K.H. (2020). The effects of physical exercise on stereotypic behaviors in autism: Small-n meta-analyses. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 35, 26-35.
9. Be mindful
Breathe. Reflect. Listen. Mindfulness strategies can be used and taught in virtual classrooms especially — but not exclusively — during stressful times like a pandemic. There is so much that is novel and potentially frustrating in distance education; use mindfulness supports to address challenges and create a sense of calm each day.
In the last few years, mindfulness techniques have made their way into classrooms for many purposes. Educators use many strategies, from meditation to breathwork to relaxation techniques, to empower students and calm nerves. These tools are beneficial (McKeering & Hwang, 2019; Romer et al., 2015; Zenner et al., 2014) no matter the context, of course, but they may be even more powerful and necessary during virtual education.
Since distance learning is so new for many students, and it may initially pose quite a few challenges, mindfulness techniques will help align their focus on the content and reduce stress. There are many mindfulness strategies that can be easily integrated into daily virtual lessons. Invite students to be reflective with an occasional journal prompt (see Mindfulness Journal Prompts for ideas). Insert an animated breathing break into your slide deck (use Giphy and search for “breathing exercises”).
Pause during lessons and remind students to drink water and be still for a moment. Adopt a few techniques and use them regularly or commit to exploring new strategies to see what works best for your learners.
- McKeering, P., & Hwang, Y. S. (2019). A systematic review of mindfulness-based school interventions with early adolescents. Mindfulness, 10, 593–610.
- Roemer, L., Williston, S. K., & Rollins, L. G. (2015). Mindfulness and emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, 52–57.
- Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools — a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 603.
10. Add captions
Are you looking for a quick and easy way to make your lessons for accessible to all learners? If so, turn on the live captioning feature on the tools and platforms you are using and teach students to access captions on apps such as YouTube and Flipgrid.
There are several ways to make virtual learning more comprehensible. One of the easiest is to add live captions. PowerPoint has a live captioning feature, and it is a powerful tool for the inclusive classroom (Dello Stritto & Linder, 2017). Spoken words are transcribed in real time and can be displayed in many different languages.
There are many uses for live captions. Use them during presentations to boost students’ understanding of material. This support may be especially helpful for your students who are deaf or hard of hearing or for those learning English. Add captions to classroom discussions to support emerging readers and boost listening comprehension and word recognition. Finally, you can support language and communication goals with captions. Turn them on to encourage students to use an audible voice or speak in a target language, for instance.
There are other ways to access captions beyond PowerPoint, of course. Google Slides also has live captioning, but as of the writing of this article, that platform does not have a language translation function. Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, Flipgrid, and YouTube also have captioning features. Captioning is now everywhere! Turn this function on and see the many ways they can increase access for learners with and without disabilities.
Dello Stritto, M.E. & Linder, K. (2017, August 28). A rising tide: How closed captions can benefit all students. EDUCAUSE Review Online.
11. Provide participation options
Some students with autism may feel comfortable unmuting their microphones to share comments and questions, but others will need other participation options. Teachers can provide choices to some students with identified needs or simply allow all learners in the classroom to contribute in ways that feel most comfortable for them.
When students are on the other side of a computer screen, it can be a challenge to creatively engage them in lessons. Not only are some collaborative structures (e.g., turn and talk) a bit harder to engineer, but interacting through a screen also makes it a bit harder to detect how (and if) students are participating in whole-class response rituals like chanting, giving a “thumbs up”, or raising their hands. Therefore, teachers need to use strategies that work well in virtual spaces and are accessible for students with different social and communication preferences.
One way to meet the needs of a wide range of learners in this context is to provide choices for interaction. When asking questions, allow students on the spectrum (and potentially all your students) to respond in ways that feel most comfortable for them. Some may want to type in the chat box and others may want to share verbally. Still others may want to hold up response cards (e.g., yes/no, agree/disagree) or pictures to express themselves.
Apps can also be used to support students. Use Jamboard to elicit responses from your group. Give students time to create Flipgrid video responses to a lesson.
12. Support special interests
Use student fascinations and special interests to inspire, comfort, challenge, and support students in virtual lessons, therapy sessions, and beyond. Favorite topics, items, and things can be integrated directly into lessons or they can be used to inspire conversation, encourage engagement, or build community.
Early in the pandemic, blogger Steve Asbell tweeted about supporting his son’s education: “The 5yo didn’t want to learn today, and yet … He drew [a] design for a Lego Technic vehicle (with written captions) behind my back. If you want an autistic kid to learn, let them lead [and utilize] special interests.”
Asbell’s idea is on-target during the best of times (Harrop, 2019; Kluth & Schwarz, 2008), but when students are under stress or learning in unusual circumstances, interests can be even more powerful. They can be used to motivate, support, and teach.
A California co-teacher tapped into interests when he dressed up as Mario for his video-game-loving first graders during a virtual lesson as did an English teacher in Illinois who renamed the chat box the “news feed” to honor a student who loves CNN.
Interests can even be used as a community-building strategy. When one middle school teacher noticed that a student often asked peers about their phones, she got an idea. To start class the next day, she asked students to change their screen names to a phone that they liked to delight this student and to help him get to know his peers better as well.
For more on using special interests to support students on the spectrum, see this video on my YouTube channel, Autism and Special Interests in the Classroom.
- Harrop, C., Amsbary, J., Towner-Wright, S., Reichow, B., & Boyd, B. A. (2019). That’s what I like: The use of circumscribed interests within interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 57, 63-86.
- Kluth, P. & Schwarz, P. (2008). “Just give him the whale!”: 20 ways to use fascinations, areas of expertise, and strengths to support students with autism. Paul Brookes.
About the author
Dr. Paula Kluth is a consultant, author, advocate, and independent scholar who works with teachers and families to provide inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities and to create more responsive and engaging schooling experiences for all learners. She is a former K-12 special educator who has served as a classroom teacher, co-teacher, and inclusion facilitator. Paula has also been a university professor and has taught courses on both inclusion and disability studies. Most recently, Paula’s work has centered on helping teachers and administrators educate all students in their schools and classrooms. She also frequently works with families and advocacy groups to support goals related to inclusion. In addition to inclusive education, her professional interests include Universal Design for Learning, co-teaching, and educating students with complex support needs.
Paula's newest book is All In: 18 Ways to Create Inclusive Virtual Classrooms (2020). She is also the author or co-author of 15 other titles including Universal Design Daily, 30 Days to the Co-Taught Classroom, Don’t We Already Do Inclusion?, and “You’re Going to Love This Kid!”: Teaching Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms. She is also the author of a few books for children including Coaster, a story of a puppy with wonderful wheels.