Pandemic learning: reflection from a mother with a son on the Autism Spectrum


Photo courtesy of Autumn Okuszka

Austin completing his schoolwork.

Roberta J. Okuszka, 53, remembers the first day of virtual learning vividly. Waking up at 7:30 a.m., making her son breakfast and helping him to get ready to reconnect with the outside world via Zoom. Now picture — it’s September 9, 2021, she awoke at 5:40 a.m., and while she still makes her son breakfast, she will no longer sit by his side day in, day out, ready to conquer the world. Sept. 9 is the first day of in-person learning since March 2020 for her son Austin, 23, who is autistic.

Okuszka grew up in Ferndale, Michigan, and graduated from Hazel Park High School. She met and then married her now-husband Robert J. W. Okuszka, and gave birth to Austin in 1998.

Austin was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2003 when a teacher noticed he was displaying common signs of being on the spectrum. Okuszka then took on the role of being a stay-at-home mother, to ensure that she’s available whenever Austin may need her.

One of the things Okuszka didn’t expect Austin to need her for though, like many parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, was to be a schoolteacher.

“I had to learn everything. I had no idea how to set up the Zooms, or how to do Schoology [online learning program],” Okuszka said.

While virtual learning was a difficult transition for all parties involved, Okuszka and Austin’s situation was a bit different. While most parent’s could rely on their children to navigate virtual learning on their own, Okuszka had to sit by Austin’s side everyday to help him not only learn through Zoom classes taught by teachers, but independently as well.

Okuszka and Austin’s school day lasted from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. five days a week from September 2020 until August 2021. While that may seem like a grueling schedule, it wasn’t all bad, according to Okuszka.

Okuszka made sure that breaks were taken often, including what she believes to be Austin’s favorite subject, his lunch break.

“I would either make him a sandwich if he wanted or he would get soup, and he would come out to the living room and watch his TV show that he wanted to watch during his lunch hour,” she says.

While becoming a teacher for her son was a learning experience in itself, Okuszka said she learned things she didn’t know herself in Austin’s lessons.

“I learned some stuff too, like, I would learn about stuff that he was learning about that I didn’t know about so that was pretty cool,” Okuszka says.

Even the people around them noticed how strong Okuszka and Austin’s relationship was the day’s they were virtually learning.

“Both Austin and my wife had a very good working relationship day in and day out,” Robert, Okuszka’s husband, says.

Of the subjects Okuszka learned alongside Austin, her favorite class had to have been choir, which she took herself as a student at Hazel Park High School.

“I enjoyed that, to sit there and watch him sing. I would videotape him and send it to his aunt’s, they were all happy and excited for him,” she says.

Although it may have seemed like time was moving slow at the time, the time soon came for Austin to return to in-person learning. While that was already a big change, a huge change also accompanied Austin’s return to in-person learning.

“The huge change was that he was going to a new school, one that he hadn’t been to before, with a new teacher,” Okuszka says. “He wasn’t too excited because we always told him that when you go back you’ll go back to your previous school, but that changed big time.”

Okuszka said that while it was a new change for him, Austin adjusted well.

“He missed school. He loves school, so all in all he was excited to go back,” she says.

Alongside attending a new school, Austin is also learning new things, such as gardening and woodworking. Okuszka even received a Christmas gift from him at Christmastime that he had woodworked himself.

While Austin’s biggest worry was going to a new school, Okuszka’s biggest worry involved what caused them to have to learn virtually in the first place.

“I was anxious because of the virus. Anxious for him to go back, because you still get notifications that there’s so many cases, so that’s nerve wracking,” Okuszka says.

Okuszka feared that Austin could contract COVID-19 through his school, and she experienced a few close calls throughout this school year.

“We did get a notification once that a kid in his classroom had tested positive,” she says.

Austin didn’t have to miss school that time because they said that there was enough distance between him and the infected student that he was fine to keep attending school.

While Okuszka did learn new things that Austin was learning himself, Okuszka also took lessons from her experience helping him learn virtually.

“You just have to have patience, because it’s not always gonna go smoothly,” Okuszka says. “Take breaks, because sometimes with an autistic child, or even an autistic adult, they can’t sit there for hours on end doing work so you have to take breaks.”

Okuszka also learned that it was hard work, but that the hard work was definitely worth it saying, “it was worth it to see all the stuff that he could do, all the stuff that he enjoyed doing.”

Austin is enjoying his time having some sort of normalcy from in-person learning, but Okuszka misses their time together. 

“I enjoyed sitting there with him doing his work, sometimes. Sometimes, I didn’t. But most of the time I did,” Okuszka says.