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Safe Schools for Those with Severe Autism Post-Pandemic

April 4, 2023

As students prepare to go back to school following the summer, the question is: how can we ensure they feel safe post-pandemic?

Safe Schools for Those with Severe Autism Post-Pandemic

Some are saying: “What could schools look like for those with severe autism, post-pandemic?” Those students who are unable to wear a mask, stay a reasonable distance from another, follow directions without physical support, need help to eat their snack and lunch, need help in the bathroom with hygiene and toileting, and could have a seizure requiring, once again, physical support?

Some are asking: “How will our schools and families work together to create this safe, comfortable, and effective environment for students?”

I say, it is time for parents, teachers, therapists, and governmental organizations to find a way to work together to create this new learning environment—which is recommended, but not exactly mandated or supported by funding.

What policies and procedures might need to be put into place? What types of collaborations and understandings might need to be agreed upon between parents, special schools, school districts, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and the State and Federal Departments of Education?

Some considerations about policies and procedures that may need to be put in place:

  1. Parents need to be sure they are doing everything to keep themselves and their students healthy. Colds, virus, flu, and disease tend to hit those who have greater health challenges harder. Professionals must also do everything they can to keep themselves healthy (nutrition, exercise, sleep)
  1. Parents will have to find ways to help their son or daughter with autism not to become obese or acquire diabetes. Better meal planning will need to occur; addressing sensory challenges over food should become a priority. Replacing sugar food intake with nutrient-dense foods will be a must
  1. Better hygiene routines need to be established. Never before, in my 70 years of life, has it been so important to wash hands and be aware of risks. Hygiene routines need to be put in place at home frequently and completed at school many times a day. Each student needs to have their own hygiene tool kits at school and they need to be cleaned at the end of each day
  1. Parents need to find support to keep their students home from school when they have a cough, shortness of breath, runny noses, and of course any infections and fevers. I have seen those students come off the yellow buses with coughs and runny noses because their parents must go to work and send their son or daughter to school as long as they have no fever. The fever symptom can no longer define the precautionary action that must take place. New education codes may need to be written
  1. Communication challenges must be addressed. This should be one of the highest priorities. Assistive technology and devices must be readily available to all students with communication challenges. It is known that the better a student can communicate, the less anxious, frustrated, and confused they will be, and the less likely they’ll feel the need to use physical ways to get their needs and feelings met. When the student uses physical ways of communicating, everyone is at a higher risk for injury and now, of course, the spreading of a potentially deadly virus
  1. Toilet training must be addressed early. How do we make training accessible and not at such high prices to families? Many private businesses have been started, offering behaviorist to provide training. Can most families afford this (at $60, $75, $125 and more per hour)? How do we address this challenge?
  1. Hygiene/toileting educational goals need to be written for home implementation and parent training, for implementation in the home environment, to reduce school staff risks. There needs to be flexibility in program delivery
  1. Perhaps more outdoor education could be allowed and goals and objectives adjusted to be met in more creative ways. Sitting and receiving information at a desk in a classroom for six hours a day with other students and support staff may not be the healthiest way to receive an education, nor the most effective. There needs to be more flexibility in program delivery

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  1. Parents need to work with their son or daughter on all self-help goals that occur naturally, in the home. No longer can the schools be totally responsible for teaching independent living
  1. The new paradigm must be more collaborative. This will be hard on families, but teamwork is imperative here
  1. Perhaps instructional assistants can be approved to train in the home? Perhaps teachers can be approved to observe in the home and train parents? Why is it that education can only occur on a school site?
  1. Parents now understand that they need to teach their children to wear a mask from an early age. This is not the school’s sole responsibility. Children learn to brush their teeth, comb their hair and take a bath at home. Now they have to learn that a mask may need to be worn when an illness is present
  1. Students need to have their own set of education supplies and learn to keep them clean (pencils, pens, paper, erasers, rulers, books, crayons etc.). Schools need funding to support this action
  1. Students need a place to store backpacks and personal items that won’t come in contact with other students’ items. Schools need funding to purchase these storage units
  1. Will group seating (at one table) work now, or will the new paradigm require separate desks?
  1. How can recess occur safely? Less students out at one time or planned recess activities with stations set up and visual schedules for the student to follow may work
  1. How will snack and lunchtime occur safely? I imagine in their own classrooms with proper health standards met. Boxed lunches, not cafeteria style, delivered.
  1. The occupational therapist’s gym will need to be cleaned after each student’s use. Perhaps more sessions need to be held outdoors with motor equipment like bikes, balls, and exercise equipment
  1. The speech therapist’s room will need to be cleaned after each session. All materials should be cleaned before the next student utilizes them. Perhaps more sessions will occur outdoors, which opens up the ability to build communication in more natural contexts. Making home visits could work. Holding sessions in the backyards of families. This could improve generalization from school to home. So, Education Codes will need to change
  1. Each school will need a safe room to support a student who has come to school with some type of unsafe symptom (diarrhea, fever, cough, etc.) where they can wait safely until a parent picks him/her up. There must be an agreement for a parent to pick up in a timely manner.  I understand it is hard to leave work, but this is a high priority
  1. Each student in special education is required to have an individual education Plan (IEP) and, after 14 years, an Individual Transition Plan (ITP). These documents outline goals and objectives as well as supports and services. There needs to be flexibility in plans so that schools are not put in compromising positions to provide education that is at risk for their students or providers
  1. These students need a very different educational paradigm. Have we looked at other countries’ methodologies? Where in the world are there better and safer outcomes?
  1. We are in a crisis in the US. We have less professionals interested in becoming teachers for challenging students. We have less speech therapists and occupational therapists coming out of our university system who are prepared to support these students. Why is this? Is it due to a system that is too narrow in scope, underfunded, and restrictive?  We need a new paradigm so we can inspire people to move into these meaningful professions
  1. How do we begin to think out of the box? Have any of the schools sat down with families and brainstormed together? What was the outcome? Has there been any open dialogue for the safe expression of concerns with people actually, actively listening, not judging and not attacking? What was the outcome? Have educational leaders found a way to come together to brainstorm on a new paradigm? What will it take? 
  1. Media reports that more and more litigation is occurring. Media reports the frustrations of families and schools. There is a continuous search for additional teachers, therapists and assistants to help support in homes and schools
  1. Important discussions need to be held at the city level, state level, and federal level, now
  1. We all need to reach out to those who make policies, and help them focus on solutions

After 40 years of passionately working in this field, trying my very best to direct schools and give hope to families, I must say, now is the time to change how we operate and to realize the old paradigms no longer fit. I know that I would be delighted to be asked to sit on a committee empowered to make change. Wouldn’t you?

This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism

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