Future Tense

The Silver Lining of Virtual School for Some Autistic Students

Moving life online isn’t easy, but it’s opened up some new possibilities.

Two kids doing schoolwork in front of a laptop whose screen is displaying a triangle with sides labeled a, b, and c
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

“10:36?! I’m going to be late!” 10-year-old Caleb screamed over Skype. (All of the names in this piece are pseudonyms.) On a Saturday morning this past April, in the thick of the pandemic’s initial wave, I wondered why he was in such a hurry. His mom, Audrey, leaned back into the frame of the laptop screen, through which I had been conducting a remote interview, and explained that he had “an appointment” at 11 a.m.

“I’m going to talk with my friends and play Roblox,” Caleb said. It was a social activity that he had never engaged in prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent move to online classes.

Since 2013, I’ve been documenting the role of media and technology in the everyday lives of racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse kids on the autism spectrum. Since mid-March, though, the “everyday” has become extraordinary, especially for children like Caleb, a Black autistic boy with ADHD whom I first interviewed in person in June 2019.

His case is particularly illustrative of this transformative and turbulent moment in education, particularly for nonwhite, low-income, and disabled students. Many Black autistic children like Caleb face significant barriers to even obtaining an autism diagnosis in the first place. The things that are making life hard for Caleb and other young people like him in 2020, though, are about a lot more than their autism, and the ways technology is affecting their lives, both for better and for worse, are not entirely predictable.

“The best thing [about the pandemic] is I don’t have to go to school,” Caleb told me, “and the worst thing is people are dying of it and I don’t want the coronavirus. I had a nightmare about the coronavirus. That we saw it in the house and I thought we had it.” Caleb’s fears were unfortunately entirely legitimate, as he lives in a rapidly gentrifying corner of Boston that abuts a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood being hit extremely hard by the pandemic.

As in many cities across the country, instruction in Boston has gone fully remote after another jump in the city’s COVID positivity rate. And across the country, virtual schooling for kids with disabilities has faced major hurdles during this tumultuous year, as families, in particular those with kids in public schools, struggle to keep their children safe without forfeiting hard-won gains toward an accessible education. The lack of daily structure and barriers to receiving therapeutic services has been a huge destabilizer for many autistic students. Even for pretty resilient kids like Caleb, who was mainstreamed into an inclusive classroom, there were new dimensions to existing struggles.

“I caught him crying twice over too much homework that he had to do,” Audrey told me; she said Caleb had never done that before the pandemic. Writing assignments for which he had to share his inner emotional state posed the greatest challenge. “He can’t express feelings, so I’m always concerned what’s going on inside his head,” Audrey said. “I don’t know one day if he’ll just explode on me, so I kind of take it easy on him, but at the same time treat him like a regular kid.” She accepts her son exactly as he is, but recognizes that how he processes the world is often at odds with social expectations. Audrey said, “He’s loud. He has his own personality that can create friction with someone who doesn’t have the understanding of, ‘OK, I know I have to help him out.’ But at the end of the day, this is the person he is.”

Caleb and his younger sister Erica were not the only ones in the household taking online classes in the spring, either. Audrey came to the U.S. from Haiti in 2001, and she’s had significant difficulty finding work since then, as her undergraduate degree from Haiti did not get her very far, nor did the part-time MBA she earned in 2018 from a local college focused on serving adult learners. When we first spoke, back in 2019, she had been driving Uber to make ends meet, but she stopped because of the pandemic. Without that income, she worried about her landlord’s threats to raise the rent. By April 2020, she was taking online classes to obtain an associate degree in the hopes of becoming an optician. “I’m in class, Caleb is in class, Erica is in class. So everybody is talking and, you know, we don’t have a big place, so it’s complete chaos sometimes,” said Audrey.

Though the quarters were cramped, they would have been unbearable if Pierre, Caleb’s dad and Audrey’s husband, were still living with them. After suffering years of physical and verbal abuse at his hands, Audrey had kicked him out of the house a year earlier. It was not lost on Audrey, who herself lives with depression and anxiety, that dealing with domestic abuse while under lockdown would have been a horrifying prospect. “It’s not like you would have been able to say, ‘Let me just go to my neighbors and spend a day there.’ … I’m so happy that I don’t have to deal with that,” she said.

For his part, even before the pandemic Caleb had preferred to stay at home with his mom and sister, outside of the extracurricular sports activities in which he excelled. Which was why his Saturday morning “appointment” was so pressing. Though remote schooling was not Caleb’s biggest strength, it had opened the door to a form of virtual socializing that was more his forte.

Caleb logged on to his school-supplied Chromebook to video chat with his friends while using his mom’s old, finicky laptop to play on Roblox with them. This social gaming setup was a workaround due to Roblox being blocked on the school’s Chromebook. “Since I can’t use the school computer,” Caleb said with a touch of pride, “I can just use my [mom’s] computer even though it’s super broken and it keeps on turning off.”

Caleb and his friends coordinated this social space; it wasn’t something that his teachers made them work together on. And Audrey was glad that he was applying his newfound independence and comfort with technology to strengthen social bonds with his peers. “It’s good to see them, the way they [are] playing,” she said, “He’s also doing homework with them. If they have a question, they can talk to each other about it, so that’s pretty amazing.” Though Caleb played a lot on Roblox before the pandemic, it was a mostly solitary activity. “Now,” Audrey said, “he’s actually playing with the person and talking to them.”

She worried, however, about his gameplay becoming all-consuming. Some have voiced concern that autistic kids are more prone to growing overly engaged in video games and experience difficulties transitioning to other activities. Caleb admitted to “staying up super-super-super-late,” and every night was becoming a fight as he pressed to stay up past 11 p.m. Audrey also kept within earshot to find out what was actually transpiring between Caleb and his friends online. She told him, “I don’t want anything bad happening because there’s no adult to really hear you to make sure that you’re not doing what you’re not supposed to be doing.” She also was apprehensive about Caleb interacting with strangers on Roblox, though she was put slightly at ease when Caleb explained that he knew how to block problematic users.

Like many parents, Audrey was constantly weighing the pros and cons of her son’s online engagement. Though some autistic kids do have difficulties self-regulating their screen media use, fears of widespread “addiction” and “obsession” are not borne out by research. Researchers have found that video games like Minecraft can actually offer neurodivergent kids a safe space to practice their social skills, though it’s not clear how or if this translates to other social spaces like school.

The way Caleb preferred to socialize after school and on weekends with his classmates was now not only the most acceptable way to socialize amid a pandemic—it was the only way to do so safely at all. But that wouldn’t always be the case. Audrey wondered, “Once this is all over, how are [Caleb and his friends] going to transition back to real life? Are they going to think this is a forever thing? … I just don’t know what the impact will be.”

Children’s digital media use and their online learning are intertwined in complicated ways right now, and this may be especially so for young people with disabilities. Families of students on the spectrum are coping with significant uncertainty, and some much more than others due to factors like unemployment, housing instability, and structural racism, as in the case of Caleb and his family. But there is something to be learned from the complex ways autistic kids’ online and offline worlds are shaping each other. This “new normal” has brought about social opportunities for many kids who never fit the neurotypical mold to begin with.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.