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SWFL student with autism enjoys virtual learning, but also deals with obstacles

The switch from in-class to distance learning put lots of kids behind. For students with autism, they also had to start getting therapy virtually. And a health expert says the virtual learning during the pandemic has caused regression in some of the students with developmental disabilities he has seen.

We learned about what became key for a student in Southwest Florida to thrive while continuing his education virtually during the pandemic.

When we met with student Sean Sullivan, he was doing chores for a school assignment while “SpongeBob SquarePants” was on TV in the background. With a smile on his face, it seemed the 17-year-old had no issue being home for virtual school.

Sullivan has autism, and, after developing a routine through making lists, he adjusted to virtual learning.

“Once we establish a routine for him, especially with him being on the spectrum, it helped [make] everything easier,” said Rhonda Rainer, Sean’s mother.

But Dr. Frances Sanchez Duverge, a psychologist with Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida in North Naples, says online learning can cause regression for kids with developmental disabilities.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen a couple kids in our offices where they’ve started regressing because of the virtual format,” Duverge said. “Having that disconnect from, you know, in person is going to cause regression. It can also cause a pause in the advancement of these kids’ skills.”

“I have difficulty talking to people,” Sean Sullivan said.

Virtual learning and therapy have created some issues for Sean.

“I have seen some regression, especially when you’re talking about communication skills,” Rainer said. “Facial cues are very important to someone on the spectrum. He looks. He doesn’t like making eye contact, but I’ve been training him to look at like maybe the cheek bones or maybe the eyebrows or looking at the chin just so that you’re engaged with a person.”

A Collier County spokesperson says they will support students with disabilities “academically, socially, and emotionally” in the new school year through differentiated supports.”

The School District of Lee County says its plan for in-person school will include details for special needs students.

On top of obstacles caused by the new learning format, Rainer also has concerns for COVID-19.

“There’s just so many unknowns,” Rainer said. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m conflicted.”

Reporter:Rachel Cox-Rosen
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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