Social Distance Is Not Social Isolation
|Virtual Instruction Continues at Exceptional Minds|
By Kat Cutright
Academic Dean, MFA
Like so many other schools, Exceptional Minds made a rapid shift to remote learning in response to the social distancing requirements put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And like so many other schools, we resumed with remote learning at the start of our 2020/21 school year.
But unlike most other schools, Exceptional Minds academy is dedicated exclusively to the technical training, behavioral support, and career development of individuals on the autism spectrum.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about remote instruction at Exceptional Minds, it’s that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation.
Our technical and vocational classes continue to be geared toward our population, many of whom struggle with communication and social skills. Before this year, our social skills and professional soft skills training utilized in-person interactions and feedback as a teaching tool, whereas this year we have incorporated these interactions into our online instruction. A cornerstone of this training revolves around a unique feedback model that blends the critique process used in fine arts and humanities education with “dailies “ used in filmmaking and animation. The feedback practice we use at Exceptional Minds helps students analyze the application of techniques, identify and solve problems, make visual discernments, develop artistic judgment, understand and follow instructions, as well as demonstrates the importance of iteration in the quality of their work.
Overcoming Virtual Barriers
We have seen that training with and practicing feedback is as effective in remote learning as it was in person. But we are missing the casual opportunities for students to develop social skills by bumping into people in the hall, chatting with peers and teachers at lunch, and meeting a whole host of guests who come to our school to learn more about Exceptional Minds and our students’ work.
Because people with autism tend to struggle to interpret social cues like the tone of voice, facial expression, and gestures, attending school virtually via technologies like Zoom can add an additional barrier in understanding the meaning of and appropriately using non-verbal communication.
On the one hand, virtual learning and virtual teamwork require much more direct verbal and written communication, which can make things easier for people with autism. But on the other hand, it doesn’t provide many natural opportunities to practice essential non-verbal communication and social skills.
In moving our programming to this new virtual platform, we have made a concerted effort to build in additional social opportunities for our students, both inside and outside of classes. Over the summer, our workshop students participated in daily social elective activities. Now that we have moved into the regular school year, we have virtualized our movie/game nights and Dungeon & Dragon for our full-time students. We have also integrated weekly meet-up clubs into our full-time curriculum so students can meet and interact outside of class. All of these are wonderful ways to facilitate friendships, which are often one of the best byproducts of a post-secondary education, but these programs also allow our staff to help when students are having a hard time connecting or resolving a conflict.
Our students’ ability to communicate and connect is just as important to their future success as their artistic and technical abilities. We have been subscribing to this viewpoint with our curriculum for many years now. As we continue to adapt and develop curriculum for online learning, I think the reality of social distancing has given us more perspective and empathy towards the experiences that many of those on the autism spectrum may have had prior to the pandemic where social interactions already required more effort and planning.