Debbie Craig explores the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on children with SEND and how innovative technology can help improve outcomes.
No-one would dissent from the view that education should be inclusive, providing equal opportunities for all learners, and that nothing should disproportionately impact those with special or additional educational needs or disabilities. Covid-19, however, has had a disproportionate effect on many such learners. There were large numbers of students who missed their routine, and have not coped well with heightened anxiety levels and disruptions to their daily lives, and it’s vital that any recovery plan should take this into account.
As an example, autism is a lifelong developmental condition, and autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently.
Unlike Covid-19, these neuro-diverse characteristics are not easily distilled down into a handful of symptoms. They impair everyday functioning, and the three most common characteristics of ASD are difficulties with social interaction, social communication and social imagination.
Yet there are many strengths with which to work. Autistic people feel their traits are a fundamental aspect of their identity and typically, are immensely loyal and honest. Supporting them means embracing this positively, not merely trying to mask issues.
ASD education in a pandemic
The impact of autism on a child’s educational experience is significant. Many autistic children who require routine and consistency to help them better understand and adapt to unexpected changes, struggled to cope with school closures, as well as the many challenges faced throughout lockdown.
Equally, teachers educating children with SEND were under enormous pressure, working in unique conditions never experienced before. Many faced the greater challenge of teaching in school whilst also remotely supporting the parents of those being home-schooled, as well as supporting the children’s learning needs, without being able to provide the same level of interaction and individual attention as they would
“Neuro-diverse characteristics are not easily distilled down into a handful of symptoms”
“Specific interests as part of a bespoke learning programme” in a school environment. This has led to increased stress and anxiety for teachers too.
Concern remains that school closures may have had a disproportionate impact on children with SEND, but could technology hold the key to support teachers, parents and students with learning and wellbeing moving forward?
Is technology part of the solution?
The use of technology has been a key element in the overall strategy to help children to continue to learn during the pandemic, so it would seem obvious that it could have a part to play in this SEND context too. The truth is that deciding how technology can be deployed here is as complex as autism itself.
So, before considering the role of technology, it is important to reflect on exactly how it might assist. First, any attempt to use technology to support in the SEND context must take into account the level of complexity referred to above. In so doing, it is helpful to consider three Ds:
1. The extent to which autism is a Disability in the true way SEND sense, and in what way can technology assist.
2. The Difficulties autistic children face; and then
3. How to exploit positive traits in the way autistic children function to take advantage of these Differences.
As an example, given some autistic people have sensory processing impairment disabilities like sensitivity to noise, the best technology solutions must base their communication approaches on visual supports/objects of reference.
The difficulties autistic children face can be many and varied, which makes this ‘D’ the hardest to address, particularly as they have been exacerbated by Covid-19.
For example, the mental health and wellbeing of children, and indeed of their families, has been jeopardised by an increased risk of social isolation during the pandemic. Equally, bb6 teachers required more targeted resources, better suited to the individuals’ specific needs, while therapists and health workers who were forced to work at a distance needed help with how to actively support families.
Families also needed specific advice and guidance in respect of the best way to help autistic children in a context that was dominated by remote learning and home-schooling, and today, the support must be steered towards recovery for everyone.
The differences offer real possibilities. Many autistic children have outstanding attention to detail, can be very focused and display great organisational skills. It is also well established that being able to harness their specific interests as part of a bespoke learning programme, can make a huge difference.
There are many examples; for instance, a child motivated by making films had an entire learning programme designed by his teachers to be delivered through this medium. Another, fascinated by machinery such as lifts, was able to develop his literacy, numeracy and other skills through studying their design specifications and manuals. These examples show that if the technology solution can exploit such interests, autistic youngsters can make outstanding progress quickly.
Technology solutions, therefore, help in a number of ways. They remove barriers to learning by overcoming specific autism related issues, such as reducing the stress caused by unexpected change at home. Whilst in school, they provide an intuitive and easy-to-use interface to interlinked resources and activities that help students achieve tasks independently, and also provide the means to track achievements. Although no technology is likely to address all the elements of such a varied and interconnected set of challenges, solutions developed by those who really understand the distinct, core needs arising from autism will be the most effective.
Technology: Key areas to consider In simple terms, technology must be based, specifically, on both the nature of the learners conditions, and the operation of the support network that surrounds the individual learner. For this reason, to ensure the technology selected supports, engages, and inspires SEND children, consider the following key areas:
It should connect key people, such as parents, caregivers, educators and health professionals; providing easy-to-use channels for communication and collaboration, facilitating their ability to work as a remote team.
Accessibility through an app available on smartphones and tablets is crucial as this ensures key features and strategies are available in one place, and reduces the need for multiple devices or a variety of software applications.
• Consistency and structure
Remember to take into account consistency and structure, such as through schedules and routines that are suited to individual circumstances. Think about whether there is an option to allow the creation of custom visual resources; as this helps mitigate unexpected changes and reduce anxiety.
Check how resources are made available. For instance, appropriately sequenced resources ensure that learners have all of the information they need at the right time and in a manner they are able to understand, learn from and act on.
Consider solutions that support families to manage home life more effectively and efficiently, and provide tools for parents with which to create visual aids to support learning (e.g. social stories).
Look at solutions that contain tools for teachers to create home learning activities featuring both mood measurement, and other feedback features, to allow everyone involved to monitor all aspects of progress and wellbeing, both in an educational setting as well as at home.
There are many technologies developed for neuro-diverse students, and now with the copious challenges created by the pandemic, it is vital that solutions are created with the ‘new normal’ in mind, whilst also effectively addressing the specific needs of children with SEND and their families.
Technologies that provide support to autistic children in the short term, such as those currently affected by the pandemic, would also bring benefits in the longer term; potentially in educational settings across the country that were struggling to meet the needs of ASD students before Covid-19. Done well, technology use has the potential to play a key role in helping to improve outcomes for children with SEND, both reducing the impact of the pandemic and, more generally, in removing barriers to learning.
Debbie Craig is a parent to a child with ASD. Driven by her own experiences to remove barriers to learning and improve outcomes for children with SEND, Debbie developed and founded app BOOP; an online learning and wellbeing platform to support SEND students and improve communication between those involved in the education of SEND children including teachers, parents and healthcare professionals. Debbie’s son came up with the name BOOP!
BOOP was recently awarded Innovate UK funding to help families to navigate remote learning during the pandemic and its aftermath.