How Can Assistive Technology Help Students with Autism?

By raluca.olariu@…, 26 October, 2021
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Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face a series of challenges that might impact their educational experience. Many children on the spectrum have difficulties in interacting with their peers and maintaining effective communication.

Any change of routine or an overload of external stimuli can trigger them and might make it challenging for teachers to teach effectively.

To help with this, assistive technology tools have been developed and can be used to support children with autism succeed in their academic endeavors.

What is assistive technology in education?

Assistive technology in education includes "any item, piece of equipment, or product system whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

Children with mobility, hearing, vision, cognition, or perception impairments can highly benefit from technology tools to make their academic experience easier and more valuable.

Types of assistive technology tools that can support students on the spectrum

Today, the range of assistive technologies devices is very broad. High-tech devices, which include computers, specialized software, or electronic equipment, can be highly customized according to specific needs. Unlike high-tech assistive tools which are electronically operated, low-tech devices don’t require any type of electricity to function. Tools like pencil grips, mouth sticks, or slant boards are considered low-tech assistive devices.

Students with autism spectrum disorder find it hard to adapt to changing situations and like to stick to a routine. To help with this, organizational apps that can create visual schedules, organize daily activities, or creating checklists can be useful tools.

Many children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are nonverbal or have some sort of language deficit. Assistive technology tools that can help address language issues are augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. These tools provide support for children who have difficulties communicating using speech.

Some of these tools include symbol boards, choice cards, keyboard charts, communication books, or mobile AAC apps.

Social skills development software is a type of assistive technology that teaches children how to process facial expressions, body language, or behave in various social interactions. For example, Avokiddo Emotions is an app that helps children identify emotions in a fun way. Also, Peek-a-Zoo is a colorfully animated app aimed at teaching children social-emotional cues and vocabulary. 

Video taping is an excellent assistive tool to teach multiple skills to children on the spectrum, who respond very well to images and videos. They are highly interested and attentive to these types of content which can make them experience faster learning curves.

With videotaping, the following skills can be trained:

  • Social and communication skills. Various social behaviors and interactions can be taught through videos which can be personalized according to the student’s needs (initiating conversation, asking questions, discussing specific topics, interrupting others, etc). Also, nonverbal communication (body language, facial expressions, mimics, tone of voice, gestures, etc.) can be more easily taught through videotaping.
  • Language skills. Videotaping strategies can improve receptive vocabulary (names of common objects, animals, toys) and expressive language (names of people or places) skills.
  • Self-help skills. Demonstrations of how to brush teeth, wash hands, or get dressed can be easily shown to students through videos.
  • Academic skills. Students on the spectrum can learn how to draw shapes, alphabet letters, numbers, or write words through videotaping.
  • Emotional skills. Videos can also help students understand emotional cues or read facial expressions.

Computers seem to work very well for students on the spectrum. According to research, the use of computers helps students with ASD improve their attention span, fine motor skills, and reduce self-stimulatory behavior.

As a lot of students with autism are highly interested in computers, infusing these devices into their everyday curriculum can drive numerous benefits. According to author Camilla K. Hileman, “computers are motivating to children with autism, due to their predictability and consistency, compared to the unpredictable nature of human responses. The computer does not send confusing social messages. The computer places the child in control, allowing for the child to become an independent learner.”

Depending on the severity of their symptoms, some children with autism might need adaptive devices in order to use a standard computer. These assistive devices include:

  • Touch window, which allows the student to interact with the computer by touching the screen. This helps students who find it difficult to understand how the mouse can drive actions on the screen.
  • Intellikeys is an alternative keyboard that allows students to simply operate their interaction with the computer.
  • Big keys is another alternative keyboard designed specifically for young students.

How does technology help students with autism?

Author Kristie Brown Lofland believes that assistive technology tools can be of great benefit to children on the spectrum, who are mostly visual learners:

Technology just makes visual images more accessible to the individual with ASD. Computer graphics capture and maintain their attention.”

Special educator Kathryn deBros also thinks assistive technology work very well for students with autism: “A huge part of going to school is learning how to navigate social situations. [Students with ASD] are totally lost without a roadmap. Technology has been huge in allowing them to bridge that gap between them and the other kids.”

READ MORE: 6 Benefits of Assistive Technology for Autistic Children

Mobile apps are great assistive technology tools that can increase verbal skills.

For nonverbal students or low-functioning communicators, visual scene displays provide great support in improving verbal skills.

High STEM skills can mean better social skills.

Students with autism are interested in improving their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills. According to a study, 34% of the students with ASD followed a STEM major course during college.

Students on the spectrum are encouraged to improve their technical skills to gain a richer school experience. At the STEM Academy in Los Angeles, students follow the “flipped classroom” model which involves computer-aided design programs, 3D printers, and robotics.

Our students learn by doing, experiencing, and constructing rather than just sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher,” Ellis Crasnow, the school’s director reveals. Enrolling in a tech school can boost social engagement and help students with ASD improve their everyday interactions.

Digital skills drive higher self-confidence.

As students with autism begin to improve their social skills, their self-confidence levels can go up as well. Learning how to use technology and digital tools on a daily basis in the classroom, gives students with ASD a sense of inner power and confidence.

Aspect Hunter School in Australia, which teaches exclusively children with autism, uses Sphero robots to encourage students to get out of their comfort zone and explore the unexpected.

It’s almost like they were brave and overcame their anxieties for the sake of showing Sphero,” Craig Smith, the school’s deputy principal.

Students on the spectrum can have the same learning and academic chances as neurotypical students thanks to the power of technology. Although some hi-tech assistive tools might be expensive, there are some very effective mid- and low-tech tools that can be used in the classroom on a daily basis.

The consistent use of technological tools can greatly increase the student’s independence and functioning skills, and open up a path of academic success for children with autism.

Photo credit: Possessed Photography on Unsplash.