Using technology to assist students with autistic conditions

Autism Spectrum Australia defines autism as “a lifelong developmental condition that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people” (Autism Spectrum Australia, 2019, para. 1). They define the main areas of difficulty as “social communication, social interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests” (para 3), noting that people on the autism spectrum may also have intellectual impairment or learning difficulties.

Conceptually, there are two related but different ways that technology may be used to assist students with autism. The first is to use technology in a way that helps to compensate for developmental differences in social and cognitive skills and understanding. An example of using technology to compensate for underdeveloped skills is using augmented reality to help people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to navigate to locations across a city (see the study by McMahon et al, 2015, which showed that AR was more effective than paper or Google maps to assist navigation for people with ASD, n=3). The second is to use technology to help develop social and cognitive skills and understanding. While we should be striving to use technology to compensate for learning deficits, the position taken in this post is that ideally we should be aiming to use technology in a developmental (educational) way as far as possible.

Another important point to remember is that technology is in many cases not the source of the solution, it is the mediator of the solution. Technology is often a great amplifier, and depending on how it is used it may either enhance learning or render it meaningless. So critically, we need a) technology developers to deeply understand the nature of autism and the needs of people with ASD, b) teachers to know how to accurately evaluate apps, c) teachers to know how to appropriately integrate from a pedagogical perspective and  according to the specific context. The most important part of this context is the individual students involved, because there are a wide variety of autistic conditions that educators may attempt to support.

One way that technology can be used to assist students with autistic conditions is through the use of iPads. As Autism Spectrum Australia explains in their iPads fact sheet (which includes an app assessment rubric) there are numerous iPad apps that facilitate augmentative and alternative communication (ACC). For instance, Proloquo2Go enables sentences to be constructed using symbols which can then be spoken aloud by the iPad. The Learning App Guide to Autism and Education provides an overview of various apps to support:

  • behaviour – scheduling and work management, choice making, visual calendars, timers, counters, personal care, speech prompts, reward systems
  • social skills – social comprehension including video-based scenarios, narrative and comic strip creation, attention development
  • literacy – phonics, spelling, sight words, writing, reading comprehension, narrative creation and storytelling
  • language – asking questions, semantic features, categorisations, vocabulary, parts of speech, sequencing, conversation, interpretation
  • senses – understanding cause and effect, visual calming, visual alerting, physically calming, auditory calming, general relaxation
  • emotions – emotional vocabulary, emotional regulation, books about emotion, mood diary, body language and emotions, facial features and emotion
  • creativity – photos with text and voice, story and book makers, storyboards, animation tools, screencasting
  • early language – early language games, verbal imitation, first words, early comprehension.

Autism Spectrum Australia indicates that these apps are particularly beneficial for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because they often support visually based learning, often can be customised to the individual student in terms of content, promote independent learning while offering immediate feedback, provide a touch interface for those with poor fine-motor skills, and is socially acceptable. However, issues include the fact that students and staff may need technical support, the devices can be broken if misused by children, may not include best practice pedagogically, and educators need time and support to orient and upskill themselves to the use of the technology.

Another advantage of many of these apps is that they can be used on mobile devices to support daily living and independence for people with autism spectrum disorders (see Bereznak et al, 2012). A meta-analysis has shown that the anywhere-anytime access afforded by mobile devices makes them particularly suited and effective in assisting with self-management capabilities of people with ASD (Chia et al, 2018).

There have been many other ways that technology has been used to assist students with ASD. A review of technology-mediated interventions including the use of desktop computers, robotics, virtual reality, and so on, by Grynszpan et al (2014), found an average effect size of d = 0.47 (which was a significant, though moderate effect, n=14 studies with pre-post and randomised control). Interestingly, there was a negative correlation found between the intervention durations and the studies’ effect sizes. For a wide variety of technologies to assist learners with special needs (including Autism) categorised by need area, try the Understood.org Tech Finder.

Immersive Virtual Reality is another technology showing benefits for people with ASD. By offering simulations of real-world situation in a safe and controlled environment students can practice their skills without real-world distractions (Parsons, 2011). For instance, VR has been used to help young adults with high-functioning autism to develop their social skills, social cognition and social functioning (Kandalaft, 2013). The cost of VR technology is reducing considerably. For instance an Oculus Go can be purchased for around $AU300, or people can use Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) or even Google Cardboard with their mobile phones to engage with VR learning experiences. This makes integrating VR into educational settings more feasible from a technical perspective. A recent systematic review involving 31 studies concluded moderate effectiveness when using VR to treat children with ASD (Mesa-Gresa et al, 2018).

The significant challenge is to integrate VR in a way that makes a difference to real world classroom outcomes for students with autistic conditions (Parsons, 2011). As well, research in the area of VR, as well as other technologies, is characterised by a limited number of high quality studies that differ quite substantially in terms of the technology used, the type of application, and the participant characteristics (Bradley & Newbutt, 2018).

In terms of further research, it will be useful to know whether immersive VR technologies across different applications and participants may be able to enhance student focus, remove distraction, develop social skills such as gesture processing, and so on for people with ASD. Anecdotally, technology addiction is an important issue for people with ASD, who are often fixated on repetitive behaviours and avoid social interaction. There is little research relating to the nature and impact of technology addiction, so this is a potential area for future research investigation. Based on this (admittedly expedient) review,  there was also very little research that explored the effect of creative rather than receptive tasks on learners with ASD. As well, there seems to be a paucity of research examining how educators can be effectively supported to use technology when teaching people with ASD. Considering the continually accelerating advancement of technology, these will be interesting and important areas for future investigation.

References

Autism Spectrum Australia (2019). What is Autism? Available at: https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/content/what-autism

Bereznak, S., Ayres, K. M., Mechling, L. C., & Alexander, J. L. (2012). Video self-prompting and mobile technology to increase daily living and vocational independence for students with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 24(3), 269-285.

Bradley, R., & Newbutt, N. (2018). Autism and virtual reality head-mounted displays: a state of the art systematic review. Journal of Enabling Technologies, 12(3), 101-113.

Chia, G. L. C., Anderson, A., & McLean, L. A. (2018). Use of Technology to Support Self-Management in Individuals with Autism: Systematic Review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 5(2), 142-155.

Grynszpan, O., Weiss, P. L., Perez-Diaz, F., & Gal, E. (2014). Innovative technology-based interventions for autism spectrum disorders: a meta-analysis. Autism, 18(4), 346-361.

Kandalaft, M. R., Didehbani, N., Krawczyk, D. C., Allen, T. T., & Chapman, S. B. (2013). Virtual reality social cognition training for young adults with high-functioning autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 43(1), 34-44.

Mesa-Gresa, P., Gil-Gómez, H., Lozano-Quilis, J. A., & Gil-Gómez, J. A. (2018). Effectiveness of virtual reality for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: an evidence-based systematic review. Sensors, 18(8), 2486.

Parsons, S., & Cobb, S. (2011). State-of-the-art of virtual reality technologies for children on the autism spectrum. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 26(3), 355-366.

About matthewbower

Associate Professor at Macquarie University.
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