'Going with the flow': Hanover family turns to outdoors to educate autistic child

Hanover resident Wendy Looker sent her grandson's educators an email on April 22 to inform them he would no longer be logging into Zoom sessions two times a week.

Instead, the retired educator would be teaching him outdoors and documenting curriculum in a journal — a style of learning much more conducive to a 6-year-old on the autism spectrum.

And Aydan's school — Hoffman Academy in Gettysburg — was fully supportive of the changes.

"Doing the additional assignments are next to impossible, and he has learned to despise 'learning' in the formal manner," Looker wrote of his regular schooling.

Instead of fighting about online classes, she said, the most important thing for her is to preserve a relationship with Aydan and avoid further regression.

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Wendy Looker, of Hanover, explains how the rings of a tree trunk show the age of a tree to her grandson Aydan Looker, 6, at Codorus State Park in Codorus Township, Saturday, April 25, 2020. Looker, a retired environmental educator, uses everyday moments to teach her grandson as the pair frequent the park outside of Aydan's remote learning during the pandemic. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Aydan and other children with autism face similar risk factors when it comes to continuing education outside of school: loss of routine, sensitivity to noise and different structures, and learning styles that might not fit the students.

Mark Claypool is founder and CEO of ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education, a private provider of education, behavioral and therapy services to about 16,000 children across the country — most of them through public schools. 

"Every child is different, and that’s why it’s called special education," he said. "You have to customize and tailor these offerings even in the best of circumstances.

"We aren’t in the best of circumstances," Claypool added.

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COVID-19 entered the world of education when Pennsylvania schools first closed March 16, pushing students into learning environments for which they were not prepared on short notice — and even more so for special education students.

“It is hard adjusting to this change in school,” said Alysha Renee, a senior and special needs student at York County School of Technology studying culinary arts, in a Facebook message.

She is used to hands-on instruction with a teacher and in small groups, prefers in-person visuals for subjects such as history and English, and hasn't been cooking at home.

For Aydan, adjusting to new learning is a work in progress. 

Looker recently took him to the park for the first time since schools closed so he could practice reading signs, identifying plants and bugs, and bird watching.

But the binoculars were not his yellow ones, and the bugs were getting to him. He zoned out when it came to observations but perked up when Looker pulled out his flashcards.

Wendy Looker, of Hanover, shows her grandson Aydan Looker, 6, notes that she took about birds that have been spotted in the area while exploring the bird blinds at Codorus State Park in Codorus Township, Saturday, April 25, 2020.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

"It's nice to have an agenda, but you kind of have to go with the flow of whatever presents itself," she said.

Aydan has a mild form of autism but has a history of trauma, defiance and hyperactivity, and he has been in the full care of Looker and her husband, Joe, for about a year.

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She's worried about Aydan regressing. He hasn't been able to get to all his therapies, activities such as Amazing Kids Club and karate are canceled, and being kept inside all day is wearing at his patience. 

"The key is to try to keep as much structure as you can for these students," Claypool said. "You really cannot afford to lose ground with these kids."

Claypool said most special education students will be able to catch up once schools reopen, but for young children with autism, there is a narrow window for learning a language.

Retention, in their case, is tied to chronological age, and Aydan is on the edge of that margin of preschool to 6 years old.

"Do not forget to demand the support of your public school system," Claypool implored parents, noting schools are responsible for getting special education students what they need.

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Gloria Irvin, mother of two special needs children in Mount Wolf, said so far she has had a good experience with teachers, who are scheduling one-on-one time with students despite the strain it must be putting on their own families.

"I can tell you that these teachers deserve a bonus and a raise for all of the hard work and extra time they are putting into getting lessons together," she said in a Facebook message.

Elizabeth Silva said it took her special needs son Ariel "A.J." Garcia, 15, about a week to adjust to schoolwork from Northeastern from home, but now he's loving it.

Elizabeth Silva, center, has been helping her children, including Izabelle, 14 at left, and AJ, 15, with their school work during the COVID-19 shutdown. Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"I think I’m going to have a hard time trying to get him back in his old routine," she said. 

Additionally, she said having her son at home has enabled her to see how he does things on his own, such as cooking and schoolwork — and how his teacher pushes him.

"I tend to baby him a little too much," she said. "Now I see more of what he’s capable of doing."

Looker is hopeful that education will turn around for Aydan soon, too.

His teachers at Hoffman offered to work with him individually on Zoom for 30 minutes, four times a week, and after his first session he was engaged and cooperative, she said.

And despite the rough start, Looker and Aydan also accomplished some things outdoors that recent day in the park — such as how to tell how old a tree is and finding an invasive garlic mustard plant that happens to make a great pesto.

They also continued building a relationship instead of being stuck behind a screen, and that, for Looker, is the most important thing.

— Lindsay C. VanAsdalan can be reached at lvanasdalan@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @lcvanasdalan.

Aydan Looker, 6, front, helps his grandmother, Wendy Looker, of Hanover, to pull garlic mustard, an invasive plant, while learning at Codorus State Park in Codorus Township, Saturday, April 25, 2020.  Dawn J. Sagert photo