School Changes and Protocols in a Pandemic World - Autism Awareness
How to help your child with autism in school in 2020

School Changes and Protocols in a Pandemic World

Going back to school is always a little nerve wracking at the best of times. It’s filled with change as we say goodbye to summer and hello to fall. This year, back to school is going to look very different for every town, city and country. Preparing our children and students with for the return to class will involve many rules, classroom changes, resources and safety measures. The more a child knows before coming to school to support predictability, the easier the transition will be. What can be done to ease this transition and lessen anxiety?

The School Environment

Every school will have its own design to keep students as safe as possible. Some questions to ask before returning to school are:

  • Will certain rooms or areas be closed like the gymnasium, cafeteria or library?
  • Will students move in one direction, having to follow arrows on the floor?
  • What will the classroom look like? For example, will there be partitions or barriers?
  • What changes will there be to the schedule? (Rotating recess times, staggered entry)
  • Are there new rules to follow such as masks must be worn in the hallways but not in the classroom?

Request that photos of school and classroom changes be provided ahead of time to share with children. Ask if it is possible to come ahead of classes starting to walk a child through the changes.

Physical/Social Distancing

Physical/social distancing will still be in place this fall. This means allowing a space of 6 ft or 2 metres between people. This is an abstract visual concept so it needs to be made a concrete as possible. Here is a good social story on this topic – it’s also available in several languages.

Here are a few video ideas that illustrate what social distancing is:

What is Social Distancing?

Social Distancing at School

Two Meters Away – Social Distancing Song for Kids

Lesson Plan to Teach Social Distancing

What Does 6 Feet Look Like?

Wearing a Mask

Wearing a mask can present sensory challenges for individuals with autism. There may be issues with the feel of the fabric, strings around the ears, tightness around the face and the feeling of dampness from breathing. Challenges with visual perception skills may make communicating more difficult when you can’t see another person’s mouth. When wearing a mask, it is the eyes that are primarily visible – many individuals with ASD find eye contact difficult. Masks also muffle voices.

Harvard Health Publishing at the Harvard Medical School has listed the following tips for mask wearers:

-Demonstrate using the face mask on a preferred object or person, such as a stuffed animal, a doll, or a family member.
-Allow the person with ASD to choose among different types of fabric face masks to find one that is most comfortable.
-Start by practicing wearing the face mask for short durations of time, allowing for breaks when needed.
-Plan initial outings in low-demand environments that are quiet and calm, so that the individual can experience success wearing the face mask.
-Use a printed photo or digital photo of the individual wearing a face mask as a visual cue to wear the mask before outings. The photo can be stored close to the door or on a tablet that is easily accessible.
-Chew gum or suck on a hard candy while wearing a mask, for distraction and to improve the smell of recycled air beneath the mask.
-Some medical settings may have transparent face masks. These masks make the mouth visible. Susan Muller-Hershon, American Sign Language/English interpreter at Massachusetts    General Hospital, notes that transparent masks can be helpful for better communication.

If using a special fabric with a favorite color or design on it may help motivate the person to wear it, see about having some made or make them yourself. There are also ideas on how to make a face mask more comfortable.

Autism Little Learners has a great social story for wearing a mask and it also translated into several languages. There is also one about other people wearing face masks, face shields and gloves.

Hand Sanitizers

Hand sanitizer feels cool, watery and slippery to the touch and evaporates quickly. Try getting used to using hand sanitizer at home before going back to school so that the feeling of using it is not a surprise. Frequent use is also drying to the hands so introduce moisturizer if necessary. Provide instruction with visuals on how and when to use hand sanitizer. The same goes for hand washing – instruct when and how to do proper hand washing. Check out this resource for addressing sensory issues around hand washing.

Getting a COVID-19 Test

If a student becomes ill in a class, it may be necessary for other students in the class to have a COVID-19 test or monitor symptoms before returning to school. Here are some resources about getting a COVID-19 test and monitoring symptoms:

Testing Social Story

Coronavirus Test Story

Symptom Checker Visual Support

Nasal Swab Technique Video

How Coronavirus Tests Work Video

Even with preparation, a person with autism may not be able to tolerate getting tested. If this is the case, isolate at home and monitor symptoms. Keep in touch with the primary care doctor on what to do.

School Transportation

Getting to and from school will look different this year. If a child takes the school bus, ask the transportation company what protocols will be in place (ex. wearing masks, single seating, empty rows). If a child takes public transit, visit the transit website to see what will be required in order to ride. Most taxis now require riders to wear a mask.

Autism Little Learners has two versions of riding the school bus – one wearing a mask and one without, also in several languages. The author, Tara Tuchel, will update these stories as more information becomes available.

Changing Protocols

This is one of the big challenges with this pandemic – the rules and measures are constantly changing as more information about the virus becomes known. You just get used to things, then they change again. Explain changes as they happen. (I always read our provincial report every day to see if any new measures are being introduced.) There is also the possibility of society tightening up again if a second wave or outbreak occurs this fall. Explain as best you can that the rules and restrictions in place today may change in order to keep everyone safe and healthy.

The daily ups and downs of life with this virus will be with us for some time. Use the teachable moments when appropriate. We’ve slowly been introducing my own two children, now young adults, to life with safety measures in the outside world. They have been coping well going at a gentle pace and knowing ahead of time what to do. Preparation lessens surprises and keeps things on an even keel.



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  1. Shirley says:

    Excellent article. Thanks for compiling the resources. I found it helpful. 

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