Autistic students discuss the effects of online learning, COVID-19 pandemic

Sheryl Lawrence

Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of suicidal ideation.

Autistic students who face accessibility barriers in day-to-day life have experienced different levels of comfort with online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ashley Richardson, autism spectrum education and outreach administrator New Student Services, said the Longhorn Transition, Inclusion, Empower, Success initiative was launched in January 2020 to provide students on the autism spectrum with support. The program started with eight students and is currently serving 22 students. 

“For our program, students just have to identify as being on the spectrum,” Richardson said. “We don’t require any diagnosis information, because I do understand as students become adults, it is very difficult to obtain diagnosis information, and it’s really expensive.”

Debarshi Kundu, a computer science fifth year, is an autistic person and said he needs to be engaged in class, so online classes make it harder to engage with lectures. 

“Now, I’ll get up maybe five minutes before, take my phone and log on to Zoom,” Kundu said. “(I) pretend like I’m actually listening even though I’m exhausted.”

Kundu said it was difficult for him when he moved back home at the beginning of the pandemic. When he came back to Austin in November, he said he felt more supported by his friends. 

“For half a year to like eight months, I was stuck at home in Houston, and I actually had some suicidal ideation,” Kundu said. “I do believe that I have more of a community that understands depression here.” 

Kundu said losing the routine of going to class in-person and interacting with people in his organizations has made him feel lonely.

“That makes it difficult for someone like me, because how are you supposed to like an autistic person if you don’t know them, if you don’t interact with them, if you don’t see them on a regular basis?” Kundu said. “That’s been difficult for me because not having that same structure has impacted me as an individual.”

Other students say online classes have actually been helpful during the pandemic. English junior Ethan Weinberger is autistic and said the online environment has been comforting because he is not forced to socialize all the time. Weinberger said he is also struggling with the anxiety of going back to in-person classes in the fall.

“It’s easy to just opt-out and turn off (the) camera, only type in the chat,” Weinberger said. “I feel more comfortable doing that, but I feel like it’s not healthy because then I’m going back to classes in the fall, and it’s not going to be like that.”

Weinberger said he has mostly had asynchronous classes, which have been beneficial to his learning. 

“For example, in classes when I’m taking notes, I feel so overwhelmed to write things down that I’m not learning anything and have to look back over it,” Weinberger said. “When I’m able to pause the video and go back and soak up every little bit of information, I feel like it’s helpful, and also more efficient that way.”

Emily Shryock, assistant director of Services for Students with Disabilities, said their services have not changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Sometimes students were continuing their same accommodations, but they might have looked different,” Shryock said. “We also have students who are specifically seeking accommodation because of some of the challenges of online learning.”

Shryock said SSD provides accommodations for students based on their needs.

“Accommodations are individualized based on students and their experience in the classroom,” Shryock said. “It’s hard to say all students with autism have the same barriers and same accommodations because that’s not true.”