World Autism Awareness Day In The Time Of COVID: Our Story Of Hope

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, and as I’ve shared in previous blog posts, this is a day that I reflect back on often. This year is a very different one for all of us as with COVID restrictions, the classroom set-up looks very different than it has in previous years. This is also the first year in many years now that we’ve had the pleasure of teaching a child with autism. A special “thank you” to Jaziah’s mom, who allowed me to share her son’s story in this post. On this World Autism Awareness Day, I’m reflecting on autism and COVID: how do we support students within the given confines and still allow for growth?

Try to figure out, what is possible? In a recent blog post by Doug Peterson, he mentioned that I like to “find the positive.” This is something that my teaching partner, Paula, and I strive to do, even though at times we might get angry or frustrated. When this school year began, we really had to dig down deep to figure out what we could do. This became really apparent when we learned more about Jaziah, as we began to wonder, how are we ever going to support him in staying in one space all day long? A few things happened initially that helped us out, and then more things have evolved from there.

  1. We re-looked at the big bench at the back of our classroom, and we wondered about creating an additional space just for him. This area is long, so it provides for more movement possibilities. It was near his table space, so he could move freely between the two areas. It also gives him a blank wall as a focal point, which might eliminate stress that can come from too many visuals.
  2. We figured out his love for tires. On the first day of school, he was really drawn to the Michelin tire in our outdoor play space. While we had a combination of various tires, it was the Michelin Man that drew his attention. Not only did Jaziah role the tire back and forth between the fence and the wall, but he also sat in it to play independently. Would a tire space support his play in the classroom? We rolled the tire inside, and it was magical! Jaziah continues to love using a tire as a chair. Not only does it hug around his body — almost providing him with something like a safe enclosure of arms — but it also gives him some sensory stimulation when needed, as he can sit and slightly bounce on it when required. A special “thank you” to our local mechanic, who provided us with some additional Michelin tires to meet Jaziah’s needs both inside the classroom and outside.

As time went on, we realized that one space — even though bigger — was not enough for Jaziah. He was looking to move, but where else could he go to? It was time to re-think our classroom space.

Paula helped figure out the first area, when she noticed that he liked to wash his paintbrushes. What about using one of our classroom sinks as a sensory area? Now not only does he ask to go there to “wash,” but he’s even extended this space into a sensory painting space for himself. It’s almost like a little bit of The Environment as the Third Teacher in the midst of COVID.

The next space came out of a team understanding that he might need another area to move to, so what about a second tire space near the front of the classroom? This area has become a plasticine space just for him. While other kids have plasticine at their desk spaces to use, Jaziah creates at this tire table. Again, it faces a wall in kind of an enclosed space, and it’s an area that he now chooses to go to when he needs it. The plasticine and the movement both seem to support Self-Reg.

We created one more area in our classroom when we noticed the social interactions and focused play that occurred at our Mud Kitchen outside. Mom told us that he loves to cook and bake, so what about making a kitchen area for him inside? While we can’t have a communal sensory space this year, we could make a dramatic play sensory area just for him. Over time, this area has been used for kitchen play and a block building space (sometimes both), but it’s great to see how this one area can meet different needs. Jaziah now has small spaces in almost every corner of the room. Maybe then this gives him destinations and options, even when movement seems so limited these days.

Figure out where and how social interactions can happen safely. Jaziah has taken an interest in other children since the beginning of the year. We know that developing social language skills is important for students with autism, but how can we develop these given all of the restrictions? It took some time for all of us to figure this out, but the outside has been key. Not only are children connecting more with Jaziah outside, but they are learning the best way to engage with him and have him respond to them. They’re actually seeking him out now, which is a wonderful thing to observe. Kids are learning about Jaziah’s strengths and what he can teach them. Teaching is not just restricted to the adults in the room.

Planning for Jaziah is a team effort, including insights and reflections from educators, administrators, and mom. Mom’s comments on our posts often provide us with more information about Jaziah’s thoughts, prior knowledge, and feelings, which help us as we then plan ahead.

Listening to his storytelling now and seeing his independence are really quite wonderful. They help us envision new possibilities.

On this World Autism Awareness Day, I’m reflecting on the fact that it’s not just the kids that learn new things at school, but also the adults that care for them. Thanks Jaziah for pushing our thinking to see what else we can do and letting us be a part of your journey this year. I keep thinking back to this experience when we were online after the Winter Break.

Jaziah regularly reminds me to never underestimate what kids can do. What are your stories of success on this World Autism Awareness Day? Even if they are combinations of some small moments, I would love to hear them. It’s been a crazy, stressful few days in Ontario education (maybe even more than a few days), and I wonder if we all need to hear a little bit of good in the midst of this. Thanks Jaziah for being a huge part of our good!