Organizations providing intensive behavioral services to students diagnosed with autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities faced immediate and unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. As data surrounding the novel virus and how to combat its spread evolved, special educators in particular were forced to pivot as they faced daily, real-time triage needs.
Leadership teams at organizations like Melmark Carolinas, which is based in Charlotte, NC and provides special education school services to students with autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities, strategically pivoted to ensure the continuity of services to all students when the state ordered schools to close. Melmark’s senior leadership team enacted many layers of change to continue offering evidence-based services to all individuals, regardless of their physical location.
For students whose instruction was now taking place in the family’s home, whether at Melmark’s school in the Carolinas, Pennsylvania or New England, radical service delivery changes were immediately implemented. Computers, web cameras, and organizational Zoom accounts (to ensure a secure online environment for tele-educational services) were made available to education staff, who quickly adapted to the virtual learning modality. Their work with students and families to interact in a synchronous, online environment was sometimes challenging due to distractions in the home and the general learning curve of technology.
Staff checked in with families multiple times each week, enabling discussions about behavioral challenges, skill programs that were posing difficulties, general concerns, and safety concerns. These check-ins also provided a context for educational staff to share information about various supports such as the use of schedules and visual cues, pacing of instruction, positive reinforcement, and favorite activities. Scripts and task analyses were created to help families understand the structure of each educational session. Every student and each family were offered individualized plans, which included new skills development. Given the propensity for individuals with ASD to lose skills in the absence of practice, individualized plans also focused heavily on skills maintenance. Health and safety skills in line with COVID-19 mitigation measures were embedded in instruction (e.g., mask toleration, thorough hand washing, appropriate social distancing).
It was also important to remain empathetic and flexible throughout the new delivery modality, as many families were navigating other adjustments to their work/life routine. With parents working from home or staying home to care for young children, and some juggling both, learning new technology, providing care and participating in online learning with their son or daughter with special education needs provided increased levels of complexity to their daily lives.
When schools in the Carolinas reopened, focus returned to in-person education, and many of the new skills growth programs such as mask toleration, hand washing and social distancing, continued. In addition, education staff experienced new tasks of their own, such as sanitizing high-touch areas for optimal virus mitigation, managing the installation of plexiglass barriers and increased HVAC filtration systems, and frequent symptom screening. Communication with families remains key throughout this pandemic.
The experience of COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of collaboration, communication, and flexibility when providing support to families. COVID-19 continues to challenge the care of our most vulnerable students. The need to provide ongoing services for students with autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities with medical fragility and/or behavioral challenges necessitates a constantly evolving response.