7 Ways Assistive Technology Can Help Children With Autism

When children have learning difficulties or speech and language difficulties because of autism, assistive technology can help them overcome these barriers. Read on to know how it can help.

By Suchitra Seethapathy

7 Ways Assistive Technology Can Help Children With Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological condition associated with problems in social communication, sensory processing and restricted patterns of behaviour. They include Rett Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) and Autistic Disorder, often referred to as ‘Classic Autism’. According to statistics provided by the Rehabilitation Council of India, nearly 1 in 500 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The rate of skill development is different in children with autism. They may not respond to their names being called, make eye contact or use gestures to share their experiences. As a result their 'joint attention' skill is affected. This skill involves a parent and child’s coordinated attention to each other (using gestures/gazes) and to a third object or event. It is vital in the development of communication and language in a child. For example, a mother points at a cow, makes the sound ‘moo’ and says, “Look baby! It’s a cow!” Children with autism may not be able to make the association. This makes learning a very difficult process for them. It is also hard for them to learn skills like taking turns, interpreting facial expressions or keeping to the topic of a conversation.

Generally, children learn through sensory experiences like seeing (visual), hearing (auditory) or touching (tactile-kinaesthetic) an object. When it comes to children with autism, they often rely on one of these learning styles to gain information about their environment. By systematic observation, a parent may be able to determine the learning style of a child with autism.

3 simple ways to determine the type of learner:

  1. If the child with autism talks a lot with people and enjoys music, then she may be an auditory learner.
  2. If the child enjoys looking at pictures, observing people, and watching things around him intensely, then he’s most probably a visual learner.
  3. If the child is constantly moving and manipulating things around, then she’s a kinaesthetic learner and absorbs most information through hands-on activities.

According to the research, ‘Focus on Autism and other developmental disabilities’, by Lovannone, et al, published by Sage Journals (2003), ‘The core elements of educating a child with autism are (a) individualized supports and services for students and families (b) systematic instruction (c) comprehensible/structured learning environments (d) specialised curriculum content (e) functional approach to problem behaviour and (f) family involvement’.

Every child with autism can learn to communicate effectively, not necessarily through spoken language, but with the help of visual supports and assistive technologies. Many speech therapists and special educators have observed that children with autism communicated and followed directions better with the use of assistive technology than through individualised instructions.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology helps enhance the learning outcome for individuals with different abilities. It refers to tools that are used to engage children with autism in learning and socialisation. An assistive device may be a hand-held tablet or a desktop with specialised software or an application. Custom-made devices can also be designed to suit the individualistic needs of the child. A child who is a visual learner will benefit from a visual device, while a child who is an auditory learner will benefit from an auditory device. Many children have auditory hypersensitivity and prefer sounds with lower decibels. Auditory devices have voice levels that can be adjusted to the child’s needs.

Education methodologies that combine learning styles like the use of 3-D models, video animations and hands-on projects, like robotics, enhance the learning experience of the child and help him improve his communication abilities.

7 ways assistive technology can benefit children with autism:

  1. Visual thinking: Many children with autism are visual thinkers. Technology makes visual images more accessible and helps sustain their attention.
  2. Auditory sensitivity: An assistive device with adjustable sound levels can help children with autism to a great extent. Tools like ‘noise-cancelling headphones’ that eliminate most of the background noise and reduce the decibels to a manageable level are useful to children sensitive to loud noises.
  3. Sequencing skills: Some children with autism have difficulty in sequencing, where they need to break down an event or a task in a specific order. For example, to an autistic child the following instruction from a teacher may sound very complex: “Take out your English textbook, turn to page 36 and copy the second para in your notebook.” A child with difficulty in sequencing skills may have no idea in what order things must be done and may get overwhelmed. Software with sequencing skills may benefit children with special learning needs.
  4. Fine motor skills: Some children have difficulty with their fine motor skills making written work a very frustrating process. Using a keyboard, touchscreen or a speech-to-text app can reduce the difficulty and frustration, thus improving their learning experience.
  5. Organisation and self-management skills: Many children struggle with executive functioning and there are apps that can assist them in it. Apps with calendars, schedules, work sequencing, etc., can help them manage themselves and their schedules better.
  6. Language acquisition: Language acquisition through motor planning is a therapeutic approach based on neurological and motor learning principles. The aim is to help children with restricted verbal abilities express themselves independently. Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC) or a digital picture board also help non-verbal individuals communicate their needs.
  7. Special education: Software and applications are specifically designed for therapeutic and special educational purposes, where activities are designed by experts and are categorised by age, skill and other learning levels. 

Children with autism learn new actions differently from their peers. They rely on their own internal sense of body position or proprioception to new patterns of movements. When a child relies heavily on proprioception, his impairment in social skills, motor skills and imitation is more. While technology is a great way to assist and augment positive behaviour in children with autism, a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder must undergo autism therapies like Applied Behaviour Analysis, Speech and Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy. Autism can present differently in each child and will have its own unique patterns and features. It is important that we, as a community, understand and support the families and children with autism, through their diagnosis, intervention and management.

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