Overcoming My Special Needs Son's Online Learning Challenges During the Pandemic

Grid of photographs of woman and her child conducting a variety of activities

My 13-year-old Son Caleb was diagnosed with Autism and a Speech Impairment two weeks before his fourth birthday. He has been in a self-contained Special Education C.A.R.E. (Children with Autism and Related Exceptionalities) Class since he began Pre-K. Learning is Most Paramount for Caleb because it gives him the best chance at a successful future of living an independent and productive life.

When COVID-19 first came, I was distraught with the school closures. To watch my Son struggling to understand why his routine was completely interrupted and he was no longer going to school was devastating. For the first time ever, my outgoing, always happy, smiling, loving child was sad and withdrawn.

It was heartbreaking for me to see him that way and to not be able to do anything to change the Pandemic situation.

I knew that even missing the few remaining months of the 2019-2020 school year could be devastating to Caleb's growth and development. His lack of continual learning time could set him back for years. We had worked so long and so hard on many of the same goals to get him to a place where he had either met them or was near meeting them. I just could not bear the thought that he might regress and lose some or all of those valuable skills! I felt so ill-equipped, but I did the best I could working with him 1-1 to get him through the remaining school year. Once we finished the school year and went into complete lockdown, I vowed to take advantage of the time we had between the summer and the next school year to be better prepared.

As we approached the 2020-2021 school year, as much as I disliked not having Caleb attend class, I knew there was no way he would remain completely safe on the campus and in the classroom. I knew that even with the school's best-efforts Caleb would not wear a mask all day, he would not maintain social distancing from his classmates and teachers, and he would want to touch everything. So, I decided to keep him at home to do online learning with me. I completely rearranged my life, professional responsibilities and activities so that I could be there for Caleb and made his online learning my number one priority. Education and Learning are very important to me, and I take his involvement and participation very seriously.

I partnered with all of Caleb's teachers and therapists to help create his IEP Learning Goals to make sure that I had the exact learning materials at home that they would be using in the classroom. I wanted to create cohesion between what we were doing at home with what we were doing during online Zoom. I knew this was important in order for us to create the most seamless learning routine for Caleb.

To best help Caleb fully understand that while we are home he is still “in school" I knew it was important to create a learning space that represented "school for him. I wanted to set the expectation that when we are in 'this space' he is “in school” and is expected to do his work. Therefore, I turned our breakfast area into "C. Academy". I even got a sign that says as much. I also decorated the area with sunflower pictures and scriptures to create a positive and energetic learning atmosphere. As I had hoped, Caleb has now come to know that every time we sit at the table in this area, it is time to learn!

In order to minimize the huge change Caleb was experiencing by not being in the classroom, his teachers and I understood the importance of keeping him engaged and making sure his learning was fun. So, we incorporated the use of maracas, mini keyboards, drums, ukuleles and other instruments into his lessons. I created songs and catchy phrases to help him to better remember the learning material. I bought animal figures, food figure items, community helpers’ figurines, a money kit, and more, so that he can have tactile stimulation to go along with the visuals he sees on the computer screen.

When we discuss his learning goal of identifying the weather and seasons, I created a song and used his actual clothes to show him what he needs to wear when it is cold, hot, raining, and so forth, outside. Because the weather is hard to simulate, we often take our learning outdoors on beautiful days to talk about the 'sun', the 'wind', and being 'outside'. When we recently had an unusual occurrence of snow here in Texas, I was so excited that Caleb was actually able to feel the cold, wet, snow in his hands, and to see what it feels like to be outside during a rare frigid winter day in Texas.

I incorporated arts and crafts into Caleb’s learning platform as well. I know how important it is for him to have an outlet in which he can safely express himself, even when he cannot always use his words. During this Pandemic Learning Process, we discovered that Caleb has a hidden talent! He enjoys painting and is actually very good at it! One day I laid out multiple colors for him to use to create a painting that represents COVID-19. While I laid out the paints, he decided how he wanted to place them on the canvas. My interpretation of his painting is this: The variety of bright colors represents the diversity of people in this nation, the bold black streak running through them all represents COVID-19, and the streak of yellow going across the entire painting, representing light, caution, and hope. Caleb’s painting is so beautiful and meaningful. I was so proud!

One of the things Caleb has missed out on while not being in the classroom is going to our School District’s RISE Facility that was created and designed for our Special Needs Students. There, they learn how to make beds, cook simple foods and snacks, do laundry, and practice all of those important daily living skills that can best prepare them for a life of independence. It is important to me that Caleb does not miss out on developing those skills, so we spend time practicing baking cookies and other light snacks in the kitchen, him doing his own laundry, cleaning his room, dressing himself, and more.

Besides Caleb’s not being able to attend school in person, one of the things that have hampered us the most during this Pandemic is our ability to actively volunteer and provide services to those in need in our community.

Caleb has cataloged hundreds of service hours in his young life by volunteering side-by-side with me. This is a trend I wanted to continue but in a safe manner. When we learned the homeless in our community needed food, Caleb and I baked 120 cookies to donate to their daily meal. When we saw that Caleb's teacher was having to do her Chemo sessions without any friends or family present, we didn't want her to feel alone. So, I hand-sewed a quilted throw for her to take with her during her sessions that had scriptures and positive reminders that she is not alone. Caleb added his special touch by dipping his fingers in blue paint and filling in the two hearts with his fingertips. He also assisted me in drawing the grass under the flamingo's (his teacher's favorite animal) feet, and he wrote his name as well. When Caleb's other teacher unfortunately contracted COVID-19, Caleb painted a picture for him. The picture represented our Online Learning Trio by including a blend of each of our favorite colors. We presented it to him upon his return after being gone for almost three months. During the Holiday Season, Caleb and I also donated some of his clothes to children in need who were living in a hotel and near homelessness. We baked cookies for each of them as well.

It has been a very scary time trying to remain safe during this Pandemic and making sure that my Son continues to learn and grow. My extended walk on this Autism Journey has shown me that our Special Needs Children really can learn anything. It just requires a lot of time, patience, perseverance, and modification. Many discussions have been had about our students in general, and the fear that they are falling behind because of this Pandemic. Our General Education students have a much greater chance of catching up and moving forward on their Educational Journey. The loss of learning for our Special Education students, however, can have life-long consequences.

I am so happy to say that Caleb has thrived in his online learning during Pandemic! When we were first confronted with COVID-19 and our educational challenges, I never imagined that this would be the case! His teachers and therapists are astounded by the things he is now saying and doing! I give Glory to God for giving us both the strength and the wherewithal to remain positive and keep moving forward day-by-day! It turns out having my one-on-one time and attention and immediate reinforcement during our Zoom session, along with having our personal one-on-one sessions, has caused Caleb to thrive and flourish like never before!

This Pandemic has shown me just how resilient the Human Spirit is! We had the worst of the worst thrown at us repeatedly and our routines and lives as we know them was stripped away. Even amid the daily tragedies we encountered as a Nation, we showed COVID-19 it was not going to defeat us. We wiped the tears of uncertainty from our eyes, we filled our hearts with new hope, and we moved forward with our heads held high, taking things One Day at a Time.

Twenty years from now, I will look back on this moment, see how far Caleb has come, and will be glad that we weathered this storm together, and shared this most precious and amazing experience.