The "Virtual School" Option for Children on the Autism Spectrum

"I spent two years fighting with our local public school system to get my son OT, SLP, and appropriate modifications and resource for his diagnosed disability. After so many meetings with county level Special Ed administrators who refused almost every resource until advocates were involved, we decided to quit fighting the school and just fight for our son. K12 is a public school and my son has an IEP and a case manager. We continue to have meetings with a committee that sign off on modifications. My son's case manager works with me to give me the support I need to make sure the modifications are appropriate and in my son's academic best interests. Before you shake your head at the crazy home school mom, understand that I am a certified teacher who taught in public school before becoming a mother. As a teacher I can tell you my son is receiving a great education that does not force him conform or endure ridicule for his differences. My question is, what is your opinion of online schools?"

An online school (also called virtual school or cyber-school) describes an institution that teaches courses entirely or primarily through online methods. Though there are thousands of commercial and non-accredited courses available online, the term "online school" is generally reserved for accredited schools that teach a full-time (or nearly full-time) course of instruction designed to lead to a degree.

Virtual public and private schools serving every grade level including graduate programs may elect to pursue accreditation through various regional and national organizations. Accredited schools must meet rigorous standards as defined by the issuing organization and are designed to insure that children are receiving the highest quality instruction and education.

All or a majority of the student services are conducted via Internet technology. The online school differs from the traditional school through the physical media that links administrators, educators, and children. Online schools are an alliance of public distance learning schools. Many states in the United States have their own online school often with a student population numbering in the thousands.

There are many different online school instructional and enrollment models. Instructional models range from (a) fully independent self-paced courses to (b) semester-based, virtual-teacher facilitated courses. Class sizes range widely with anywhere from 25 children to as many as 200 children in each class section. Children keep in contact with educators and collaborate with other children through web communication tools provided in the course delivery platforms like Blackboard or Desire2Learn or Moodle.

In some cases children communicate by phone with instructors. To help with communication many online schools have implemented their own system programs to help build courses and maintain student profiles. There are also many books and training manuals to aid in the development of such schools and courses.

Online schools may be free if the state pays for the courses, otherwise, there will be a course fee to be paid for by the student or parent(s). If an online school is chartered through a public supporting school district, there would be no cost associated for a student to attend the school or receive the materials/supplies needed to complete the schooling.

If the school requires a financial fee from the student or mother/father, materials do add up. Most courses will provide electronic materials free of cost, but others require some shopping on the children part. Textbooks are not required but can be used as an aid for coursework.

Many materials are provided free of cost. Some schools provide programs, usually for web design classes. Some popular materials include Adobe Systems products, Jasc products, and products from Macromedia. Other schools may use Corel products as a cheaper alternative. These products are usually free. Student usually receives the full version of the selected program, with a limited license, usually 1 year or so. These programs are important to the success of online schools, and help them to improve each year.

Many schools will also provide a brand new computer for all children in need of one. Generally, these computers run using the Microsoft operating system, but depending on lesson needs and coursework the school may also use Linux based computers or Apple Macs. Some online schools provide a free lap top for use throughout the school year.

Online schools may also provide children with a wide variety of materials that include, but are not limited to just a laptop computer. Some Online schools in the United States may also provide children with the following materials free of charge: Textbooks, Study Guides, Course Guides, Art Supplies (markers, crayons, construction paper, etc.), Science Kits, a Calculator, an All-in-One Printer, a Laptop Case, a Laptop Charger, a Head Set that is equipped with a microphone, a Bamboo Tablet and a wireless router.

Advantages of Online Education—

1. Advocates of virtual learning believe that online schools hold advantages (e.g., not being required to attend and travel to face-to-face classes and the integration digital media into the curricula).

2. Despite federal and state laws that traditional schools are supposed to abide by, many school districts fail to perform timely IEPs. Often times, school officials want to blame moms and dads or suggest that the Aspergers (AS) or High-Functioning Autistic (HFA) child is manipulating, rather than recognizing the challenges the child faces and adapting their curriculum or environment to help him/her. The student and his/her family would not have to face such a dilemma with an online school scenario.

3. In traditional schools, many school districts refuse to require mandatory training for special education/special needs students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that school districts and teachers are not well-equipped or trained to deal with AS and HFA students or other special needs students. Many districts don’t have mandatory training, and there seems to be little - or no - motivation to obtain that training independently. Despite federal and state laws, many school districts still use restrictive and punitive measures to deal with students on the autism spectrum. In an online school scenario, the program could be completely oriented to the needs of the student.

4. Online schooling is much more economically feasible. The costs to conduct an online school is substantially less because there is no need for school buildings, full time staff, etc. The money could be more efficiently used in programming the online education experience and could reach more children with special needs. Lower income students could be provided computers, supplies, and Internet access, which would still be less expensive than building ownership, taxes and maintenance and staffing.

5. Online schools are a great equalizer. No matter what their social, economic, religious, ethnic or physical or mental differences, virtual education gives all children the same opportunity to reach their full potential.

6. Online schools give a student the opportunity to stay in school when traditional brick and mortar schools will no longer accept them. Some reasons for this could be extensive absences due to medical reasons, teen pregnancy, or for other reasons that the school system may deem distracting to the school body.

7. Many online schools include online study groups in which children interact with each other online. Children are able to meet in these groups using Elluminate, Wimba or other means. This type of “socialization method” is a much better “fit” for the student on the spectrum.

8. The bullying of AS and HFA students has become endemic in schools. But, despite so-called “zero tolerance” policies, school districts seem to look the other way or not fully enforce the policies. Fortunately, there are few bullies in an online school setting (although “cyber-bullying” does occur, it is much easier to get stopped due to email addresses and IP addresses that moderators can track to locate and confront the “online bully”).

9. Traditional (offline) schools have difficulty keeping pace with the student’s education needs due to financial strain. Schools are paid for with tax money. The taxes are supposed to cover the physical buildings, maintenance, teacher salaries, supplies, and everything else that goes into education. Each year, there tends to be a request for more tax money to increase these expenditures. In addition, for AS and HFA students, there are additional expenditures for special services (e.g., occupational therapy, teaching aides, sensory rooms, etc.).

As the diagnosis of ASDs has gotten better, the incidence these disorders has skyrocketed to 1 in 100 (a recent study suggests that the incidence may be as high as 1 in 38). Again, this will only increase the demand for funding. With online schools, costs are greatly reduced, and as a result, the resources can be used to “fine-tune” the program with the student’s special needs in mind.

10. In an online school setting, the student can:
  • advance to higher levels of courses
  • earn 8 credits a year (32) credits over 4 years
  • enjoy and focus on elective courses during the day and focus on academic courses in the evening and/or on the weekends
  • graduate early
  • learn innovative technology, time management, and personal learning style
  • plan learning around his/her favorite activities, work schedule, or other responsibilities
  • receive one-on-one tutoring and personal attention from teachers
  • recover lost credits or earn extra credits
  • take the course at home, school, during a trip, or anywhere he/she choose to do so

Disadvantages to Online Education—

1. Unlike traditional education delivery methods, children at online schools do not directly interact with teachers. Hence, virtual education is considered by many to be equivalent to a directed-learning program. Because children do not interact with their teachers or peers face-to-face, "lack of socialization" is often quoted as a disadvantage by detractors. Recent anecdotal evidence indicates that, while socialization may be different, it is not necessarily lacking. It is also recommended that children enrolled in online schools be involved in social activities outside school, much like home-schooled children.

2. Another perceived disadvantage to distance learning is the added challenge of staying focused while in the home environment – and many children report that staying on task is the most difficult aspect of learning online.

3. Critics argue that for online education to be taken seriously, online programs must adhere to generally accepted educational standards. One way that online schools are proving their effectiveness is the implementation of the same standardized testing that brick and mortar schools require of their children. To reduce this criticism, The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) has developed a set of standards. Some believe that this is an important first step in monitoring online programs, but while every provider of education must be accredited, the quality of accreditation varies significantly.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management


•    Anonymous said…  I live in a smaller town in Arizona & I am struggling with my son at school. I am still fighting for him, fighting against staff & trying to get him help. I've been doing this since he was in 2 1/2 years old, he's now 9.... I'm exhausted. I wish we had these resources here.
•    Anonymous said… Aww this sound like a school of Heaven-/ ❤️
•    Anonymous said… Demand a Functional Behavior Analysis & a Behavior Intervention Plan. It'll give him rights & protection.
•    Anonymous said… Every teacher has to take a special education program to meet their teaching course criteria. My son's 4th grade teacher took the offered [optional] additional training course when she got him in her class but dropped it because it was vague and inadequate for the amount of time it took from her day. She used one on one actual experience dealing with him, my input and her own independent research to adjust her teaching strategy. She did a wonderful job. So when a teacher says they have special needs training, make sure they are not referring to the general study they took to become a teacher. Most special ed teachers are great because they are specifically trained in many spectrum disorders. My son is high functioning so he is/was in regular or co-taught classes. Thankfully 90 percent of his teachers have been great.
•    Anonymous said… First, it is correct that general education teachers only have to take 1-2 semesters of special education courses. And even then it's such a broad overview of the history & laws, its basically useless aside from ticking a box on a list of requirements. Next, please do not assume that all teachers are stupid or ignorant or don't care. There will be some, of course. It is our jobs as parents to advocate for our students. Ever since my daughter was small, I went in to meet her teachers early, I explained her diagnosis, reinforcers that work, things that tend to set her off, etc. I communicate frequently with her teachers. Kids never give the whole story so if something happens I want the teacher's side too. If you think your child's modifications & accommodations aren't being met, call an IEP meeting, ask for data, ask them to provide proof that they're being used & if they are & aren't effective, they need to be changed. Which brings me to this, ATTEND THE IEP MEETINGS!!! You have no idea how many of my students (with significant intellectual disabilities) have parents who never attend the IEP Meetings, don't read the goals or accommodations, etc. If it's inconvenient, reschedule. If it's way over your head, get an advocate (many are free). If you need time to process, table the meeting, take the paperwork home & process before you sign. Finally, not all parents are able to enroll their students in an online program. Many students with IEPs come from single parent homes. I for one am not going to let my 11 year old sit home ostensibly doing her schoolwork while I'm at work. It's just not always feasible. Furthermore, kids with Aspergers tend to be antisocial anyway. Allowing them to leave the school environment & hold up at home is not the healthiest idea.
•    Anonymous said… I spent two years fighting with our local public school system to get my son OT, SLP, and appropriate modifications and resource for his diagnosed disability. After so many meetings with county level Special Ed administrators who refused almost every resource until advocates were involved, we decided to quit fighting the school and just fight for our son. K12 is a public school and my son has an IEP and a case manager. We continue to have meetings with a committee that sign off on modifications. My son's case manager works with me to give me the support I need to make sure the modifications are appropriate and in my son's academic best interests. Before you shake your head at the crazy home school mom, understand that I am a certified teacher who taught in public school before becoming a mother. As a teacher I can tell you my son is receiving a great education that does not force him conform or endure ridicule for his differences.
•    Anonymous said… I would love to try this but my 7th grade son has terrible executive functioning skills and I fear he would do nothing in an online school unless I stood like a hawk directing his every move. I guess it really depends on the intrinsic motivation of the child.
•    Anonymous said… It's not 100%, but is the 1st school ever that he has wanted to go to. He is also now enrolled in a Welding program at our local Career Institute.
•    Anonymous said… K12 won't allow enrollment if your child has missed more than 6 months public school. They told me my son was disqualified from enrollment until he went back to public school and earned at least six months of grades in a semester. He hates the school he was in and refuses to go back. So what now - guess just a GED then. Feel like the system has failed us!
•    Anonymous said… Many of these schools have no training to work with our kids and when things go wrong the children are punished and moms take the blame. It reaches far past ignorance for these people to disagree with your child's diagnosis.
•    Anonymous said… My little boy is five years old, has Aspergers, and was suspended at the beginning of his Kindergarten school year. He acted out due to his disability. My son has anxiety now. I fought hard and they expunged the suspension from his record. As mothers we are being bullied by people who are hiding the fact that they are not trained to work with our kids. It needs to stop.
•    Anonymous said… My son is five years old. He has Aspergers. These people are beyond ignorant. Ashley, I hope that things improve for your son.
•    Anonymous said… Nothing wrong with a GED or TASK diploma. Your child can still go on to trade school or college.
•    Anonymous said… Putting my son in K12 was the best thing we ever could have done for him. Brick and mortar schools spend their money keeping kids out of Special Ed services so parents will have to pay to fight the system or just give up out of exhaustion. Now I make needed modifications with easily attained approval from his case manager. No fight, no advocate costs, and no mean kids alone with my son.
•    Anonymous said… Switched my son to an online school in 8th grade. Although this particular school wasn't the best for him, it was the best situation for him. A few years later, we found the best of both worlds. An alternative school in our school district that requires 5 hrs of classroom instruction per week. All classes are online. So... he controls when he feels like going to class. If he wakes up and it's just not a good day, he works from home. Unlike when he went to a "regular" school, he actually gets up on his own and goes to school every day for usually 5 hours. It has been a wonderful program for him.
•    Anonymous said… That's totally accurate!
•    Anonymous said… The admin of our school is so wrong-headed that DS14 fled from the school last spring. The admin would not listen to me, did not follow the IEP, and was heartless. The SPED teacher threw DS14 under the bus o keep her job.
•    Anonymous said… The schools here In NY did so much damage to my son , he is now a mess and cant fit in anywhere ,even alternative schools .His anxiety is through the roof ,from all the bs they have put him through ... For an example .. in 3rd grade his teacher told him to skip school ,she needs a break from him "!@ And I could go on and on about it . The entire special ed dept has to be revamped with people who know about Apsergers and issues that come with it ... too many kids are being so damaged by these districts . They dont even listen to diagnosis's either ... i was told they disagreed with the diagnosis of Aspergers for my son ! I should have gotten a lawyer!
•    Anonymous said… There are many roads to one place and like us parents, teachers need to be flexible and work with the two or three kids in their class that need some extra time and support. Teaching means teaching all the kids, to the best of their ability and some need further "breaking it down" or "modifications" of busy work and especially "home"work, which has never been proven, ever.
•    Anonymous said… This is so true!!! The teachers are trying to tell me that Asperges don't exist..and he is getting bullied and the school personal are blaming him
•    Anonymous said… Wow! That would be perfect for my daughter! Where is this?

Post your comment below…


Anonymous said...

Virtual School was wonderful beyond belief!! I would still be doing it with him had he not wanted to try and go back.

It was amazing........I often with I had the guts to pull out all the kids. Acually, depending on how the start of 6th grade goes for my 11 year old, I may yank him out....he's ADHD/Slow processing......and academics have never NOT been a struggle. Sigh.

It still had the pub school "requirements" of how many days he had to "log in". I had the "teachers books".....there were all the subjects, even art and music - which we "faked" here and there and just did what he was interested in.

But,,,,,it allowed us to continue with Math or whatever when we/he was on a roll. Or, if we were having a bad day, we just did something else or nothing at all.

To accomplish all the "requirements" of the school/grade, the entire list of the assignments were right there on the computer. When I had to go somewhere or whatever, he'd go ahead in English and look over different chapters and then he'd go over when he definitely knew or what wasn't a struggle. If it seemed hard, he'd leave it for when I was home.

Again, it was a blessing. I don't think school is needed for anyone. Social reasons? Well, when they are negative, then they aren't necessary. he he.

My son never had a problem going to stores, talking to people if he felt like it (or had to)....
he just didn't fit with other mean kids or non-accepting teachers/school employees.

I looked at it as,,,,,,,,we, as adults, have to interact with others, yes. But, we also choose to on our level of comfort. And we all survive.

Keeping him in school was not an option when I started to worry about his emotional health.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mark,

My daughter, Angelique, is 13. She turns 14 in September. She last went to normal school last year. It was a very bumpy year as her condition only then started to come to light. It was a very scary and confusing year for me. To come to terms and accept that my child is not normal but special. Here is Namibia there is not help for such children and I'm stuck. She's been at home since January 2011. There are some programs where I can get software to help her at home but for me it is simply impossible to take that step as I'm the breadwinner and my salary is so small. I've informed my employer of my problem with Angelique and they said that they would review my salary. I should hear from them by the end of July. Angelique's father does not understand her condition nor does my family. If you have any help of know of any way I could better equip my child please let me know. The online school thing has really caught my attention.

Best regards.


Anonymous said...

Lisa Zahn Can anyone recommend a virtual school that's particularly good for our kids with Aspergers? I am thinking about this for my son who is entering 9th grade in the fall. I am frustrated with the lack of resources and support for his IEP, even though we only school part-time and homeschool part-time. They just can not afford the staffing necessary, and our high school has 1600 kids in it.
4 hours ago · Like
Debbie Sammons Hill The only virtual school I am aware of is K12. It is tuition-free as well. I haven't tried it out, but depending on how 6th grade goes in the fall, we may be trying it.
4 hours ago · Like
Lisa Butterworth For anyone in the UK the NISAI academy is fantastic. It's brought my son back from the brink of self destruct and beyond! I can't praise them high enough. Good luck all x
3 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Cindy Cowgur Thank you! My son will be in 9th grade this fall and we've had nothing but problems with public school. It's been a REAL struggle. 6th-8th grade have been the WORST!! I will certainly be looking into this. We probably would have done this before now if I had known it was an option. Thank you again for the information! :)
13 hours ago · Like

Bill said...

On the services standpoint, I think this area is rapidly improving. There are multiple companies trying to tap into this area now- OT/PT/SLP services. Also, there was an evidence based study proving the efficacy of telehealth treatments in OT last year. Finally, there are private virtual schools out there who are getting ahead of the game by doing businesses with telehealth companies. So, this article needs to be updated for special needs parents who might read this.

Unknown said...

Is K12 still the best option? My daughter is having a very hard time and I am at a loss. I could use some guidance. Help?

Charlotte, NC

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