Canton School Accepts Challenge of Teaching Autistic Students Remotely

The school aims to return in person on August 26.

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The FOCUS Center for Autism is a specialized school in Canton. Its curriculum provides education and socialization programs for autistic students from 10 to 21 years old. Like all schools, they’ve been closed since March, forcing students there to adapt to a virtual learning program.

FOCUS officials say they gather students via interactive media each morning. Assignments are given and completed before the class of 16 students re-convenes at the end of the day.

“They tried to get out of it at the beginning like, ‘oh no, we’re home. We don’t want to do that.’ But we stuck to it and I think the structure has really helped,” said FOCUS’ Director of Autism Services Dan Sitcovsky.

Among the assignments, the school recently taught an art class. It distributed materials to students' homes and gave instruction online. Guest speakers have also engaged older students through the internet, providing career advice and inspiration.

Instructors say for some the process has actually worked better because it’s less overwhelming than being with a group of people, especially for the older students.

“Because there’s less stimulation they feel less overwhelmed,” said Sitcovsky.

Adapting to remote programs has challenged all schools and FOCUS is no exception. 

“It is different being online so they are missing out on things but we’re trying to adapt and meet them where they’re at,” added Sitcovsky.

Like many schools, FOCUS is using interactive media to teach. What it can’t duplicate, however, is social interaction, which is a critical aspect of helping children with autism.

“It’s so important for our guys to be with others and practice their social skills and feel safe,” said FOCUS spokesperson Lauren Gardner.

Instead, students are home, where in many cases parents are needed to provide additional assistance. Instructors say for parents of an autistic child the remote learning process can be exhausting.

“It’s different for the parents that are trying to educate their kids at home that have autism, it’s a little more complicated than typical kids,” said FOCUS Coordinator of Support Services Sharon Cable.

Cable has an autistic son of her own. She also runs a parent support group at the FOCUS center and says she’s witnessed the stress some parents are now under.

“A lot of them are supposed to be working from home and helping their kids do their school work and that’s like two full-time jobs,” Cable said.

So, parents and students alike, are looking forward to August 26, the date this school has targeted for an in-person return.

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