Up to 96% of children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties in processing sensory stimuli. Some autistic children are often disturbed by sensory overload and become anxious when entering unfamiliar environments. Also, children with autism can show hyporeactivity to sensory input, thus making it challenging for them to interact with the environment in a healthy way.
It can be particularly hard for children with a diagnosis of autism to distinguish between different sensory feedback responses, their brain taking it all in at the same time—this is a highly painful experience that can trigger temper tantrums.
To support children in learning and engaging with the world more easily, assistive technology tools have been developed over the past decade. The use of innovative technologies to help people with autism address overwhelming sensory stimuli has proven a very effective way to treat various symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders.
What are the challenges of sensory-disturbed individuals with autism spectrum?
Autism sensory issues can range from over-responsiveness or under-responsiveness. For instance, some people on the spectrum overreact to bright or fluorescent lights. Others get overwhelmed by certain smells or tastes, and even some types of touch can feel highly uncomfortable.
On the other side, there are people who can't feel pain or have a very low sensitivity to it, or under-respond to body signals that maintain balance and coordination. Hypo-reactivity can be dangerous to live with, especially in children.
How can sensory tech help children with autism?
Although many innovative technologies that address the needs of autistic individuals are still being tested and researched, a number of proven benefits have been shown when integrating assistive tech in a child's therapy plan:
- Boosted independence in daily activities, mobility, play, or academic tasks
- Increased interest regarding daily tasks or routines
- Higher engagement in meaningful activities
- Improved sense of self and self-esteem
- Better social communication skills, verbally and nonverbally
- Higher inclusion with peers and more opportunities to demonstrate competencies
There are multiple areas where assistive technology tools can help children with autism. The main skills improved by these tools are:
- Communication skills. As autistic children often struggle with communicating their wants and needs, as well as their ideas and opinions, supporting them in enhancing their communication abilities is essential. During therapy, working with various assistive technology tools depends on each individual's unique needs, the environment, and the tasks that have to be performed.
- Social skills. As we already mentioned, interacting with the world around them can be tricky for children with autism spectrum. One of the main goals of assistive technology is to help individuals integrate and learn how to socialize in a healthy way. Special apps like Book Creator or Little Bird Tales provide supported visual information to teach social skills in multi-sensory ways.
- Writing and reading skills. Specialized tools for improving these abilities vary from writing curriculums, low-tech graphic organizers, adapted paper, text-to-speech programming, or audiobooks. Both reading and writing are academic tasks that involve many motor skills as well, like holding a book or a pencil. Assistive technology can help improve the way kids manage to address and complete these tasks.
- Playing skills. It can be difficult for kids with autism to play with the toys that their peers are easily playing with due to their delays in fine motor skills. To help with this, assistive technology tools are designed to change the way toys are being accessed to match the individual needs of the kid.
Types of assistive technology tools
Assistive technology range from low-tech to mid-tech and high-tech. Low-tech assistive tech consists of tools that don't require any type of electricity to function and needs little-to-no training to operate. These tools are the most affordable type of assistive tech and include slant boards, pencil grips, or velcro sneakers.
Mid-tech assistive tools are usually battery-operated and may require some training. They are more specialized than low-tech tools and have many capabilities that enable ongoing assistive tech consultation and training. Mid-tech tools can consist of audiobooks, multiple-message voice output devices, or screen magnifiers.
High-tech assistive tools are electrically-powered devices, highly specialized and customizable according to specific needs. They include tablets, motorized wheelchairs, specialized computer software, or communication devices.
The most popular assistive technologies for sensory integration are:
Pressure vests consist of a torso-hugging suit that individuals with autism can wear to combat hyperactivity or lack of attention. Through its 'deep pressure stimulation' effect, a pressure vest can help children with sensory overload relax by inducing a calming effect on the central nervous system.
As people with autism deal with challenges regarding social communication, pressure vests can teach them that getting close to other human beings feels comfortable and thus increase their social skills.
The relaxing effect that an inflatable vest provides through a 'hug' of deep pressure helps release anxiety and may increase the release of oxytocin, also called the 'love' hormone. High oxytocin levels have been linked with increased empathy, trust, and social communication.
Deep pressure therapy is a form of tactile stimulation that soothes the nervous system and provides a sense of relaxation for individuals with autism spectrum. In her research journal, “Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals”, Temple Grandin, one of the top scientists in the field of autism, says that:
'occupational therapists have observed that a very light touch alerts the nervous system, but deep pressure is [relatively more] relaxing and calming.'
Recent studies in the field of deep pressure therapy show that children diagnosed with autism seek and prefer firm surface pressure instead of a distal stimulation of hearing and seeing. Children with self-injurious behavior have reduced their harmful habits through deep pressure therapy.
Tactile stimulation can be applied through pressure vests, Snoezelen Rooms, or squeeze machines.
Snoezelen Rooms or multi-sensory environments are specifically designed for autistic children to help them deal with sensory input more easily. Through these tools, they can choose the amount and type of sensory information that he or she desires. Snoezelen Rooms provide a complex therapeutic environment that allows people with autism to experience a high level of stimuli in a controlled manner. This type of assistive technology uses a wide range of sensations of sounds, smells, colors, or textures to create a relaxing space that reduces anxiety and supports social communication.
There are studies on snoezelen therapy that show it can minimize self-stimulatory and injurious behavior, and improve social skills. More exactly, the following observations were made after studying the behavior of three individuals with autism:
“during Snoezelen based occupational therapy treatment sessions for three people with moderate to severe/profound intellectual disability, autism and severe challenging behaviors, carried over beyond the session to two different settings: increases in engagement with tasks immediately following the treatment sessions as well as to reducing the frequencies of challenging behaviors on the days after treatment sessions”.
The study also revealed that while sensory integration was effective for some individuals, it didn't work for everyone. As in any form of therapy, in order to maximize its beneficial outcomes, the snoezelen therapy must be repeated on a daily basis.
Although a snoezelen therapy plan can be really expensive, with costs reaching around $25000, it is highly indicated to opt for this type of therapy if parents can afford it.
The Squeeze Machine is another type of assistive technology that helps reduce the oversensitivity of the nervous system to alleviate anxiety and reduce the intensity of panic attacks.
The Squeeze Machine is designed as a V-shaped structure that consists of a rubber padding that applies even pressure from both sides of the individual. “When the neck opening closes around the neck, it enhances the feeling of being surrounded and contained by the embrace of the deep touch pressure squeeze”, reveals Temple Grandin, the inventor of the Squeeze Machine.
This popular type of treatment works well for people who are oversensitive to tactile stimulation, although, as Grandin mentions, it doesn't necessarily work for other individuals. She studied the effects of the Squeeze Machine on college students and was able to determine that it had a relaxing outcome for many subjects, more exactly 45% of them.
The costs of this type of assistive technology can go up to $2000, quite expensive for most families to include in their children's deep pressure therapy.
Social Sensory Surfaces or Sensory playscapes are interactive tactile environments that help children with autism develop fine and gross motor skills, as well as encourage social interaction.
This technology was developed by a team from the University of Michigan and consists of a screen that, when touched, it changes colors or projects images.
"The idea is to be as engaged as possible with that environment, so instead of being just a backdrop, it's actually ... a tactile, a sensory experience, and something which can also trigger and encourage social interaction within that space", said Sean Ahlquist, one of the founders of social sensory surfaces technology.
As this assistive tool is still in its early time, the team in Michigan is invested in conducting extensive research to determine the impact a daily interaction with the screen could have on a kid's fine motor movements.
"We also want to look at the effect of physical activity," they said, "because we know in children with autism, they have fewer opportunities to engage in physical activity, and as a result they really become more and more sedentary ... as they get older."
The scope of the project, as Ahlquist reveals, is to build "a sensory experience which allows the child to be comfortable and confident, to then start to slowly integrate most often the most challenging aspects in autism, which is the social interaction."
Regardless of their age, kids with autism require special treatment plans and tools to help them live easier and more independently. The field of assistive technology has developed multiple advanced tools that intend to make a significant impact on the way autistic kids live and interact with the world around them.
Assistive technology is providing an alternative communication strategy that comes in support of more traditional therapies, thus creating a holistic way in which the treatment and social integration of individuals with autism spectrum becomes more efficient.
As we've observed, the benefits of assistive tech tools are multiple and address a wide range of needs for people diagnosed with autism. Hopefully, this yet new field of sensory integration tools will continue to develop to further support autistic children on their path to a normal lifestyle.
Photo credit: freepik