As some of you may know, April is National Autism Awareness month. According to the Autism Society of America, “autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” ASD may be defined by a certain set of behaviors, but it is also a “spectrum condition,” meaning it affects individuals in different ways and to varying degrees. While there is no singular cause of autism, increased awareness and early diagnosis and access to services can lead to significant improvement.
Although I am surely no expert on ASD, I became intimately acquainted with the condition through my high school senior comprehensive project. During this project, we were challenged to explore an issue or situation in a field of study that we found interesting, integrating traditional academic disciplines with “real world” settings, issues, and topics. A friend and I decided to explore the field of education, specifically education of those with autism. We worked in a private school for children (kindergarten to age 21) as well as a comprehensive center for education and support.
Over the course of the project, we met students at varying levels of severity. Some experienced delayed learning of language or even little to no speech. Others had difficulty making eye contact or holding a fluid conversation. In other cases, students struggled with executive functioning (i.e., reasoning and planning), weak motor skills, or sensory sensitivities. A person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors, demonstrate few, or show signs of others. Across the board, however, the classroom experience presented challenges. Striving to provide lessons in both social understanding and academics, teachers demonstrated great ingenuity, which brings me to my reason for writing this blog.
In both settings, I was impressed by the widespread use of technology as a tool and equalizer for teachers as well as students. From touchscreen phones to tablet devices, mobile and app technology were being utilized to address barriers in social skills, speech, functional or organizational life skills, and much more. While developments in technology have radically changed our lives, they have shown even greater power for those with autism. Because of the unique capabilities of technology, those with ASD can communicate, learn, and interact in ways that work for them, in ways that were not previously possible. (https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/the-use-of-technology-in-treatment-of-autism-spectrum-disorders).
According to Temple Grandin, an author/professor who is also on the spectrum, pictures are the first language for those with autism, while words are the second language. This means individuals with autism are more literal, visual thinkers who can process information better when they are looking at pictures or words. Technology gives these individuals remote access to graphics or visuals so that ideas can be illustrated rather than written. On another note, some individuals may have auditory sensitivities. Today, users can download applications that detect appropriate voice levels or volume so that sound levels can be adjusted according to need. For example, an app called Noise Down will automatically sound an alarm when the decibel level gets too high, and Noisy Pro will indicate to an individual when they are being too loud. Some individuals with autism are unable to stay on track or sequence when there are multiple steps to completion. Technologies have been created that reduce the number of steps required for a task or give a visual representation of the steps in a task. Sequencing Tasks: Life Skills, for example, provides options for guidance such as lists of printed words, words and pictures, just pictures, voice/no voice, etc. As I mentioned before, some individuals may not use speech to communicate. In some cases, voice output devices can be used to speak for them, and app technology with visuals may convey wants or needs by a simple touch. As described by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, some children with autism will learn to read phonetically, while others will learn visually with whole words. In a typical classroom, it could be difficult to accommodate both learning styles, but voice output technology can help certain students with auditory reinforcement while computer graphics can help others visualize words. Lastly, to develop life skills and augment independence, there are many apps that allow individuals to practice fine motor skills (handwriting, typing, etc.) and assist with organization and self-management (Visual Schedule Planner, Pocket Schedule, or Functional Planning System).
According to Kristie Brown Lofland, contributor at the Indiana Resource Center, there are over one million autism-related apps available today, ranging in price from free to several hundred dollars. Check out any of these sites, and you will find an exhaustive list: http://www.smartappsforspecialneeds.com/, http://a4cwsn.com/, https://autismapps.wikispaces.com/, https://mobilelearning4specialneeds.wikispaces.com/. Over the past few years, the number of iPads/tablets purchased has also skyrocketed, likely due to media that paints these devices as “a panacea for every individual with ASD.” Because the purchasers did not understand the specific needs of their loved ones and which applications would assist them, the majority of iPads were inevitably used for entertainment. As we have seen with other technologies, only “certain things will work for certain people.” Lofland explains that not all individuals with ASD need iPads for communication. They may, however, use the technology to improve another skill like getting ready for school.
Just as in business, educators and caretakers must exercise caution when selecting technology to implement. The devices and/or apps should be “personalized to meet the individual needs of the learner.” Lofland suggests decision-makers ask themselves a variety of questions like: “What is the population/individual I will be working with? What skills do I want to target? In what context will the technology/app be used? How do these skills compare with their peers? What outcomes do I expect?” In my opinion, it sounds an awful lot like the questions business leaders should consider when implementing technology in their organizations.
In their 2016 Autism Prevalence Report, the CDC revealed that the prevalence of autism in the United States had nearly doubled since 2004, rising from 1 in every 125 births to 1 in every 68 births. As a result of efforts such as the national awareness month, a spotlight has been shown on autism, prompting the nation to consider how to serve individuals and families facing the challenges of autism. It is my hope that, as the pace of technology continues to grow, accessible technology will continue to grow and improve as well.