At times, online education can become frustrating for everyone especially special needs children.
July 26, 2023

Virtual Learning and Its Pros and Cons for Autistic Students

The advancement of personal computers and their increased access across every household and individual have revolutionized our society and world. And, with the internet being far more accessible in all parts of the world, people from different areas and countries can easily share the same platforms and share ideas within seconds.

This doesn’t only mean sharing the same social media platforms or forums. Still, these developments have brought about a significant shift in how children pursue and receive their education. When children receive education through computers and the internet, either inside or outside of the educational organization, it is referred to as virtual learning. However, it’s mainly referred to educational settings online, and the teacher and students are separated physically.

Virtual learning is a complete game-changer for the education sector because it improves educational access and significantly impacts school’s cost-effectiveness and student achievement. While it’s true that virtual learning cannot replace or even replicate many aspects of physical education setting, it still provides unique opportunities for both teachers and students, such as recording classes so that students do not miss classes even if they are unable to attend their classes on time or they are in a different time zone. However, it is really challenging to help kids to stay focused during distance learning .

Historically, children have always talked about classwork and homework. In a virtual learning setup, this distinction disappears. Hence, the connection between home and school becomes relatively seamless. It is worth remembering that the purpose of virtual learning is to extend educational experiences – not trying to replicate them. This is because students access resources and interact with others very differently in a virtual learning setup, in a way that they wouldn’t do or wouldn’t be possible in a physical classroom.

Impact of Covid-19

The spread of the novel coronavirus has brought several challenges for most of the world, and children have been the primary victim. Many children and their families were entirely unfamiliar with the concept of virtual learning before the start of the pandemic. Still, the need to adapt to the current situation has resulted in them having to familiarize themselves with it.

As cases started to rise, schools worldwide were promptly shut down, with an estimated 1.2 billion children having to sit at home. Many schools didn’t adopt virtual learning quite quickly but instead waited for the situation to get better. However, as the problem started to worsen and the possibility of physical classes became non-existent for the time, schools had no other alternatives but to look at virtual learning to ensure students continue to get their education.

Although Covid-19 has accelerated the speed of adoption of virtual learning, it would be completely unfair to say that the growth is entirely down to covid-19 as an estimated US $18.66 billion have been spent globally in edtech in 2019 while the total market valuation is projected to reach $350 billion by 2025 for online education . It is safe to say that students have adapted differently to virtual learning, where some students seem to thrive without any distractions around them, and some have found it incredibly difficult to feel comfortable in this setting. It is particularly challenging for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for whom routine, consistency, and structure tend to matter more. Many students with ASD may face challenges related to communication, abstract language, comprehension, difficulty understanding, along with an increased likelihood of depression and anxiety – all of which may be amplified during such stressful times.

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Pros of Virtual Learning for Students with Autism

Increased Comfort: School life comes with a lot of social pressure on students to impress their teachers, other students, etc., which can be particularly overwhelming for students with autism. When these students carry out their studies virtually, they are suddenly relieved from all the social baggage and focus on the more important stuff. Students who do not feel comfortable interacting with other students or speaking in front of a crowd can avoid doing it and instead use social media and forums for communication. Avoiding more extensive classroom settings and working in a more familiar and comfortable surrounding at home can also help reduce the chances of anxiety for these students.

Flexibility and pacing: Every child’s needs are different and so are their ability to grasp knowledge at an optimum level. For some, waking up early and managing the journey from home to school, class changes, etc., can negatively impact their productivity. For some autistic students, the structure and pacing of a standardized curriculum aren’t good enough. These students work to the best of their abilities when given the freedom to follow their interests and work at their speed. As virtual learning is in its infancy in many places, the flexibility has not yet been appropriately granted, i.e., students still have to join their virtual classes at a pre-scheduled time. Still, virtual learning is inherently meant to follow the student’s pace and learning needs.

Less Bullying and Social Stress: One of the biggest challenges for the autistic community is violence. Bullies think of them as easy targets to ridicule, and the lack of support from peers means they are always targeted. Such incidents can have a long-lasting impression on the students, many of whom may perceive anyone apart from their inner circle as a threat. Such situations have proven to be damaging for students and discourage them from going to school. Virtual learning can take that stress off of children and allow them to focus on things they like.

Focus on Learning: If we think about the number of things students have to focus on to impress their peers – such as what to wear, how to behave, etc., it’s no wonder that they get stressed, and their focus shifts from learning to being accepted in their social circle. Virtual learning alleviates all of these pressures, and students report a tremendous decrease in anxiety as a result. The reduction of anxiety allows students to be more focused on instruction and open to communication.

According to some common diagnoses, fewer Sensory Assaults: Several ordinary aspects of a school day can be harrowing for a student with autism. Some of these aspects include class buzzers, microphones, fluorescent lights, and crowded halls. Hence, a properly managed environment at home can be the best option for autistic students to go through their day with ease.

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Cons of Virtual Learning for Students with Autism

Regression: While virtual learning has been beneficial for several students with autism, many are finding it very difficult to grasp the current reality and situation. Many parents complain that their children’s progress has regressed as a result of virtual learning. There are also severe worries in terms of their ability to form social connections. Some students have adapted quickly to Zoom or other virtual platforms, but several others have completely shut down and disconnected from the outer world. This has led to the regression of their academic performances and emerged as a significant source of concern for both the parents and tutors.

Lack of Special Attention: For a virtual learning environment to provide the best results, all parties involved must be sufficiently dedicated to it. However, sometimes it could not matter if they have the best resources available and the best intention at heart; it could still not work. The reason? Students with autism often need careful attention and a specialized learning environment, which simply cannot be replicated in a virtual space. Many of these students face trouble concentrating and working independently, and teachers cannot provide them with the special attention they might need to help them.

Challenge for Parents: Teachers looking after autistic students at schools are primarily trained for it, but virtual learning requires parents to take up the role of helping their child. Parents might not be too familiar with virtual learning themselves and, subsequently, be hesitant to take up these responsibilities. Similarly, parents might also have other responsibilities to take care of, including their jobs or taking care of another younger child. Parents can become drained or overwhelmed when dividing their attention and patience efficiently.

Accessibility and Understanding: Most digital-based virtual programs are based on the assumption that students can navigate the content. However, the learning resources designed might not be easily accessible and understandable for every student, especially students with autism who need special attention. E.g., students may not comprehend every non-verbalized action in video-based material, and captions can’t tell the whole story.

Five Tips for Helping Your Child with Autism Learn Virtually

Virtual learning is a challenge for most students and requires a period of adjustment and perhaps some anxiety along the way. This process of adjustment becomes more difficult for students with autism due to social-communication challenges. One of the biggest problems for parents is the lack of research into this topic. One 2019 systematic literature review found only four previous studies on online learning experiences for individuals with autism.

Here are five tips to help your child smoothly transition from physical learning to a virtual learning environment:

  1. Explain the situation: It is essential to explain why they’ve been forced to stay at home and learn virtually. Use clear and easy-to-understand languages, understand that this won’t be a permanent measure if they don’t want it to, and use social stories to help students with autism understand the situation and explore whatever feelings may arise.
  2. Create a space dedicated to learning: Allocating a designated area for learning can help students remain free of distraction. The room should preferably be quiet and clutter-free. Don’t expect them to adapt quickly to a new learning environment, as it might take some time for them to realize and accept it.
  3. Create reasonable expectations: Virtual environments have proven to be daunting and intimidating for people of all age groups, so* expecting these students with autism to adapt to them quickly is unrealistic*. It’s normal for them to miss their friends, teachers, and old routines. Some students might even prefer a virtual learning environment because it relieves them of social pressure.
  4. Accommodate for sensory needs: One way to accommodate these students’ sensory needs during the school day is to incorporate movement. A fidget toy or headphones might help block out distractions, while some other tools may be needed to meet their specific needs. It is also wise to consult with other parents or teachers to know what’s worked for them in similar situations and try to replicate that.
  5. Use parental controls: Virtual learning exposes your child to long hours on the internet, and while it’s good to trust your child to understand what’s right and wrong, it would be not very smart to trust the platforms or gaming companies. Look at some of the ads that filter through during games and other internet search queries related to a child, and it’s entirely inadequate for your child. Using a parental control app like makes sure you have clear information about what is being seen on your child’s devices and what activities they are indulging in without necessarily having to stand on their shoulders all the time.


Virtual learning, like many other things in life, has its advantages and disadvantages. However, this is a trend that is here to stay. Several families and students report that virtual learning has been a ‘blessing in disguise’ for them, while many others have shared the challenges they have faced. Virtual learning is not a ‘one size fits all, and hence it’s problematic for plenty of kids. It’s also true that most parents and guardians of an autistic student have struggled with technology and routines. However, with the current reality in mind, parents shouldn’t lose hope. Perseverance and patience are crucial to aiding your child with autism.

The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Otsimo Inc.

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This post does not provide medical advice. See Additional Information.