A student on the autism spectrum doesn't just have to adjust to learning over Zoom and not inside their classroom, or reconcile the idea that all of their schoolwork is now, er, “homework.” Many have a more complex network of education that could include speech, behavior, and occupational therapies. The educational environments they’ve learned to recognize with their own purposes & routines are now blended into their home environment, and they’re all happening virtually. In the case of students at the Gordon School’s Tikvah Center for Autism — named for the Hebrew word for “hope” — years of schooling were tossed upside-down.
This is a look back at school year unlike any other.
By Samantha Schalit
It rained on graduation day — hard. But everyone was smiling, even behind their face masks. You could tell, because real smiles come from the eyes. Half-soaked and full of pride, teachers and staff watched in the school’s carpool lane as the parade of decorated vehicles celebrated the eighteen graduates from the Gordon School, three of them from the Tikvah Center.
There were balloons and a giant gold star under the awning where each student would get out of their family’s car to receive their diploma from the teachers who’ve seen them grow over the years. These educators know them well and connect with the students through their interests, so they made unconventional, personalized graduation signs.
The students were enthralled — the slinky curve of the hand-drawn snake and feathery birds, the smoke pluming out of the Titanic’s four funnels — for a moment almost forgetting they were back at the school building to graduate. There’s something about “feeling seen” that is the most human experience of all, and it’s what makes the Tikvah Center special.
There is no one-size-fits-all education for the Tikvah Center, which is key to their mission of creating inclusion for their students in mainstream social and classroom settings. Knowing their students, understanding what will motivate them, is the basis for individualized, research-based intervention strategies that help their students’ language acquisition, behavioral skills and independence.
It's hard to find a motivator in virtual schooling. In Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) methodology, which is core to special education, consequences are provided in order to encourage desired behavior or discourage undesired behavior. In practice, it gives educators & their support systems a framework to help students with autism navigate human behavior and engage in academics. Most importantly, ABA functions as a tool teachers use to understand how their students’ think and encourage independent response.
Having school at home means that the efficacy of ABA can be compromised if what happens "at school" isn't enforced similarly "at home." Here, consistency is everything.
For most kids, streaming lectures & lessons live on Zoom, or turning in all assignments online isn’t a dramatic transition, it’s an adjustment. Students with differing abilities, like ASD, rely on in-person interaction & guidance from teachers, coaches and therapists.
“[We] use small teacher to students ratios and modified curriculum to meet each child where they are at," said Stephanie Llanes, director of the Gordon School’s Tikvah program. "A lot of this is stripped away when you enter the world of online learning."
Like many educators across the country, Stephanie had to convert curricula and transition staff & students to a virtual way of teaching no one was prepared for.
There was no existing methodology that could provide individualized support to meet each student's social & academic goals without connecting face to face. And even more difficult was to continue "mainstreaming" students with ASD into larger classes with their neurotypical peers.
“Without being in person, it's really hard to gauge if they're absorbing the information & paying attention,” said Noah Schalit, one of two academic coaches focused on that transition. “We spend a few years getting to know these students, and it takes time to get comfortable.”
Try New Routines
One thing was certain early on: transitioning Tikvah Center students — and their families — would require flexibility.
"The routines of our families were about to drastically change and an adjustment period would need to take place for our students and their parents," Stephanie said.
The goal was to set up a new framework that could bend a little whenever they needed. To get started, families were asked to choose a time slot during school days where they'd participate in one-on-one video chat time with their teacher, imitating the individualized instruction they'd receive face to face in the classroom.
Processing information happens a little more slowly for some students, and it can be difficult for them to break down the series of steps in a process. So, if they’re not processing information at relatively the same speed as the rest of the class, they’re constantly behind. That's where teachers like Laurie Davidson and Amanda Shames step in to help with organizational skills and recall.
While teaching virtually, Laurie and Amanda need to support parents in facilitating the strategies they’d normally use at school, and ensure families were equipped to provide instruction for their kids.
“We’ve always been open and welcoming for parents — anything they need — but this has taken it to a new level, and parents’ involvement has been super important here,” Laurie said.
Headed into new territory, Laurie wasn’t sure how using Zoom would work for her students.
“I thought we were going to lose connection with our kids, [but] we’ve been able to create connections with the families. We’ve developed a solid routine and we’ve become very comfortable doing this with each other.”
Amanda creates her students’ materials from scratch based on their individual levels. So she wondered how she was going to teach without the usual tools and in-person interaction. Pleasantly surprised, she’s seen progress with her students.
“They’ve continued learning even in this new environment: new topics in math, new vocabulary and stories,” she said. “The parents seem inspired by the progress their kids are making.”
One of Amanda’s students was learning to count money, so in order to use his iPad after dinner, he’d have to pay a certain amount (with fake money); that’s practicing the skills he’s learning in Math. Another of her students was reading a story about planting tomatoes, and the parents actually grew a tomato plant with [their child] at home so they could understand the concept of what they’re reading.
“[Our students] are getting a lot more extra practice at home. At the beginning [parents] were so frustrated…it was scary at the beginning. And now when you see it’s working, you’re seeing progress, [parents] just want to continue it. They’re getting creative and the extra time they may have is benefiting the kids.”
The hardest part has been the limitation of working on their behaviors. “If a student walks away frustrated, there’s nothing we can do from the other side of the screen,” Amanda said.
But apathy isn’t an option for this team. Working with the parents they’ve developed creative behavior management tools like token boards & strategies to portion school work while teachers are still distanced from their students.
It’s a nearly unbreakable barrier that also threatened to hinder their students’ social skills. “The best way for our kids to learn social skills is being with kids in class,” Laurie explained. “What the kids see at school, the experience and exposure, is a huge teaching tool that we’re all missing for sure.”
While some of their students would interact with other types of students in electives, it wasn’t quite the same. Not ones for giving up, Laurie and Amanda held social groups over Zoom, so their students could be exposed to conversations, and practice keeping attentive in a discussion.
“I didn’t expect it, but they really enjoy it,” Laurie said. “Our kids crave the social time as well. It’s a misconception that people with ASD don’t crave the social connection; it’s not the case for everyone.”
In these online social groups, they might do yoga or at-home scavenger hunts. Amanda was pleasantly surprised when her students started to ask her about their friends in other Tikvah classes. “They really miss each other,” she said.
While summer camps, including the Gordon School’s, will be opening up this summer with new rules, we know this uncomfortable period of our lives isn’t quite over, especially for students & their support systems.
“People with autism are reliant on routines; COVID-19 is this biggest disruption anyone could’ve anticipated,” Laurie said. “It’s made a lot of our students grow. I really feel they’ll be better for it.”
The Tikvah Center was founded by dedicated members of the community over ten years ago. It has flourished from 3 students to reaching its maximum capacity. The center is within The Gordon School making it the only Autism-specific program in a Jewish Day School giving the students many inclusion opportunities with their peers. UM-NSU CARD assisted with curriculum development and classroom set up, ensuring the students are in an environment best suited for meeting their social, emotional and academic needs, allowing them the potential to succeed to their highest ability.