Technology can be a tool for bridging the gap between communication and learning in children with autism. Some children may benefit from assistive technology (AT), such as devices used to help communicate using pictures or pre-recorded speech samples. Others may benefit from augmented learning tools, such as software designed to teach and reinforce concepts from the classroom.
When using any technology, parents, teachers, and caregivers should first evaluate the appropriateness of the tool for the requirements at hand. Because the expression of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is so diverse, tools that may be perfect for one child may be ineffectual or sometimes even counterproductive in other situations.
The use of technology tools should also be monitored and re-evaluated periodically. There’s a good chance that the use of certain tools, like visual supports for language, will need to be adapted as the child matures or as certain capabilities are strengthened.
Caregivers in the child’s life can work with behavior experts to determine the best mix of technology to meet goals that help the child thrive.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Devices
One of the most important tools in the life of some children with autism are augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices.
An estimated 25%-35% of children with autism are “minimally verbal.” Challenges with verbal communication can spill over to non-verbal areas as well, since verbal cues often teach, reinforce, or augment non-verbal communication.
However, just because a child is not outwardly verbal does not mean that they do not have a need or desire to communicate. AAC devices can help these children interact in a way that engages their preferred style of communication. It can also help build language skills that allow the child to better understand foundational concepts of verbal communication. This lowers barriers that can sometimes prompt the child to express agitation since these physical expressions are often based upon a perceived inability to have their needs recognized and understood.
Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) are a low-tech form of visual communication that can help facilitate clear communication between caregivers and children with autism. These devices rely on pictures to embody concepts or specific aspects of the child’s life, such as brushing their teeth. PECS can also engage the child, allowing them to explore their own self-expression or obtain a firmer grasp on communicating narratives to caregivers and peers.
“PECS relies on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) so that distinct prompting, reinforcement, and error correction strategies are specified at each training phase in order to teach spontaneous, functional communication,” writes Lee A. Wilkinson in A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools.
Visual communication tools can also supplement or replace many verbal instructions. For instance, the child could be given a “visual schedule” to help them better understand what lessons and activities will be done for the day. Cue cards containing instructions to “Stop Talking” or “Look at the Teacher” can also provide non-verbal reinforcement to promote following instructions.
Speech Generating Devices provide a similar supplement to typical verbal communication. These simple devices offer a “keyboard” of voice samples the child can use instead of their own voice – even if the samples happen to be recorded from the child himself or herself.
These technologies may seem low-tech, but they do have high-tech versions available. Tablets with apps or specialized computing devices can have these functions loaded onto them. Giving the child access to these programs allows them to explore independent learning and customize their experience for improved communication.
Using Technology to Learn and Explore
Technology can also have a place in teaching complex concepts or inviting exploration of them.
Sphero robot kits, for example, can teach children multiple aspects of science and technology. The devices can help instruct on concepts like simple machines or magnetism. They can also allow kids to discover interests in technology that can lead to exploration and self-expression. Being able to not just build but experiment and fine-tune creations allows children to obtain a sense of independence and creativity, and it also communicates the importance of achieving long-term goals through incremental steps.
Accommodating the Child’s Comfort Level
A common source of struggle is that caregivers can fail to recognize that the comfort level of a child with autism has been breached. Since many children with autism have trouble communicating their comfort level in a way that is recognizable to neurotypical individuals, it is often better to monitor the environment and meet the needs of the child proactively.
For instance, the Talk Light can be used to monitor noise levels in the environment, ensuring things don’t get so loud as to overwhelm a child. Noise-canceling earphones can also be used to help a child cope with noisy environments, such as a crowded airport.
Some researchers are even exploring the possibility of gathering real-time health data from the child to better understand moments of the day when they are in distress.
“Measurements taken from home and school environments show that extreme overload experienced internally, measured as autonomic nervous system (ANS) activation, may not be visible externally: a person can have a resting heart rate twice the level of non-autistic peers, while outwardly appearing calm and relaxed,” writes MIT professor Rosalind W. Picard in a 2009 paper.
The proposed device could monitor situations where the child is in distress, allowing parents and caregivers to better understand what environmental triggers may be present. However, the prospect of monitoring the child throughout the day presents concerns of privacy and data security, which means that the use of such technology must be carefully considered before real-world implementation.
Self-Driven Activities and Video Games
Thanks to devices like low-cost tablets, there is a wealth of technology available that can allow for learning, reinforcement, and exploration outside of the classroom.
For instance, the app Aiko & Egor provides children with a visually stimulating form of positive examples and lessons regarding socially accepted behaviors. The app includes not just colorful animated videos but also quizzes, games, and joint learning with teachers and parents.
Video games are another common technology outlet for individuals with autism, and they can provide meaningful cognitive skills as well as social opportunities.
As Autism Parenting Magazine notes, “for kids affected by ASD, video game play and social media may be one of their best tools to connect with peers.”
Video games can be used to connect children with autism to family members and peers in ways other activities cannot. A 2016 Guardian article describes how the video game Minecraft allowed a father and son to spend time together working on virtual joint projects while helping the two forge a closer relationship.
Tools like video games and apps can encourage independent learning, exploration, and the development of critical social skills thanks to their stimulative capabilities. However, parents should be mindful that children with autism may crave that stimulation to an unhealthy degree, so it is important to monitor habits, limit screen time, and replace it with other rewarding or productive activities.
“Replacing gaming with other activities is critical to changing excessive gaming behavior,” suggests the Child Mind Institute. “Your child is gaming in large part because she finds it fun and it is something she is good at. Gaming can be done virtually any time, with little planning or effort.”
Again, being proactive, watching closely, and setting goals can make the difference between something that’s helpful versus something that’s ultimately harmful. Consider that screen time can have diminishing returns, so it must be supplemented with necessary activities as well as other forms of entertainment and stimulation.
Choose the Right Technology for the Right Situation, and Get Professionals Involved
Technology can allow for some fairly important growth – and even some breakthroughs – but there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to evidence-based autism treatment.
The best approach is to set goals and determine which technology may be best given appropriate criteria. Note what seems to work best for your child.
Behavioral health professionals can help you with the identification, selection, use, and modification of assistive technology use to help you seek the best outcome for you and your child. Get in touch with Therapeutic Pathways today to learn more about your available options and how to best navigate them.