Closing the Gaps in Education: Technology and Autism

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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.

8 comments

  1. I love that you were able to time the topic of this post with the start of Autism Awareness Month. I shared this article with my mom, who is a speech-language pathologist in an elementary school and works with a number of children who are on the spectrum. She agreed that the advancement of technology has really changed her field. She uses an iPad on a daily basis in her classroom and feels that it has had a great impact when teaching certain lessons. For example, she might use it to play games or watch videos with the kids or even to record conversations for playback. I also liked your point about how important it is for educators to exercise caution when choosing which types of technology to implement. The use of technology in special needs education clearly has several positives, however, there are still occasions when other methods can be more impactful. Well done, Molly!

  2. Molly I loved this article! Over the summer of my senior year of high school I worked as a counselor at a school sponsored camp for students with disabilities. I had the pleasure of working hands on with students while they furthered developed skills and tools specific to their tailored needs and struggles. I was extremely impressed with my schools implementation of technology into the summer curriculum, more specifically the use of smart boards and laptops incorporated into their lessons. The school went as far as allowing students with sensory problems to play instruments via iPads and headphones while others played along with real instruments. I found that whenever a student would become frustrated with something the ability to look at a screen and show their emotions through technology like graphics or pictures rather than words was something that was extremely calming and useful for my students. As this issue continues to grow more and more companies will join in on developing even better apps tailored to specific students with specific needs.

  3. Great post Molly! It is always nice to hear about technology being used to better people’s lives. I was not aware that for people on the spectrum, pictures are their first language, but it clearly makes sense that the ability to use visuals through technology is a great benefit. It is fascinating that technology can be implemented throughout someone’s life, as well. Technology is not limited to assisting in school or in growing up, but it can be used far into someone’s future. I like that you mentioned technology should not be implemented in every situation, as, especially for people with autism, human interaction is so important. I wonder how parents or professionals draw the line on what the right amount of technology is? I am sure it is different for each person, but it seems like a tough decision. I think this draws on the larger question of how much technology is too much technology?

  4. Its so great to learn about the different ways technology can be used to improve the lives of people. Like Katie, I also didn’t know pictures are the first language for individuals on the spectrum. Knowing that, it makes even more sense that technology can play such a huge role in meeting their needs but also providing teachers the tools they need to be able to work with their students. I think the flexibility and adaptability of technology is really important to be able to work with students with a spectrum condition who have different degrees of severity. The technology allows the students themselves and the teachers to accommodate for these differences and in a way, they are given them the personalized care they need. The fact that there are so many different autism related apps must really help too. I wonder though, if so many options ever creates more challenges or burdens for the families and teachers trying to work with the individuals on the spectrum. As you mentioned, there has to be a degree of caution exercised when selecting the appropriate technology and the burden of sorting through all the options might provide limitations. I haven’t done any research on this myself but it would definitely be something interesting to look into. On another note, I also wonder how the growing awareness is allowing for increased or improved technology used for early detection. The technology has come a long way already and I’m sure it will continue to improve.

  5. Great, thorough post. Education in general doesn’t get enough funding and attention even though it is such a crucial part of life. I think you shed part on one of the greatest ways technology can help change society for the better. I volunteer at a lower income hospital, but a lot of the kids there with disabilities still have iPads to watch shows and play interactive games because it’s so crucial not just for entertainment but also for development. There are apps out there designed for people on the spectrum, but I wonder if any major tech companies like Apple will ever focus projects directly on integrating iPads, etc. into a classroom with children on the spectrum. I think the best way to advance the technology is time and money. As I first mentioned, education is generally underfunded so if more funding and top-level research could be dedicated to help improve the technology and make it more accurate and personalized then the sky is the limit. I would love to hear about how technology impacts people with other types of disabilities, too (i.e. Parkinson’s, Down Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, etc.).

  6. Great post. One of my students a few years back did her presentation on social media and autism. It’s still one of my all-time favorites!

  7. This was a great read Molly! I am not personally familiar with the challenges surrounding Autism, but this post gave great insights into the background and the technology advances surrounding it. While there seems to be an app for everything, it is not surprising that there are apps for learning with Autism. But I was shocked to see that there are so many! Since the spectrum is so varied, it is great to see that there are so many options that there are sure to be some programs that essentially everyone can work well with. I agree with @jennypenafiel11 that the abundance of choices can make it difficult for teachers and caregivers to decide and feel confident that they are using the best/most appropriate apps. It’s great to see that so many people are working to find new solutions for life-changing benefits with technology!

  8. As @jennypenafiel11 and @mariaknoerr both brought up, the thing that most caught my attention about this post is just how many apps there are out there to serve children with autism. It is extremely encouraging that so many people care and are so invested in creating solutions to aid in the education of children with ASD. I wonder if a technology is being developed to pinpoint exactly what app might be best for a specific case. As you mentioned, it is tough to pinpoint exactly what will work, because each case is different, but I would hope that a database out there would be able to assess a particular case and cross reference it against every app and at least narrow it down a bit, since theres no way we can expect any person, no matter their level of expertise, to be knowledgable on all 1 million+ apps out there. For now, it seems like an okay problem to have, as it’s better to be overwhelmed with resources than to not have enough. Great post, Molly!

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