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Apr 09

Autism in the Age of Technology

By Dana Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-D - The Sage Colleges Special Education Articles Add comments
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by Jess

As a society, we’ve come a very long way in a very short time with regard to technology. It used to be that you need to have a degree in . . . well, computer science, to understand and use computers. It used to be that computers filled whole rooms. It used to be that the first home-based computers used the family television as a monitor, and stored data on a cassette tape (remember those?). Also, remember that high-pitched whine when you would go online, paying by the minute to access this wondrous new thing called the “world wide web”?

Fast-forward (to hearken back to VCRs) 20 years, and technology is everywhere. One single device can be used to order groceries, make phone and video calls, watch movies, research medical conditions, buy shoes, program your television to record a show, manage your dog’s vet appointments, listen to music, play a game, take and store photos and videos, and this one device can fit in your pocket.

I’m not telling you anything new. After all, you’re probably reading this blog post on a device of some kind – whether it is your home computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet. If you’re not reading it on a screen, someone printed it for you from a device. What many people don’t realize, however, is how important technology has become in the treatment and support of individuals with disabilities. It is the great leveler. We are equally unsurprised when we walk into a doctor’s office waiting room, airport gate, or crowded train car, and see someone using a tablet device, and that someone is anyone from 2 to 82 years old. Why are these devices so useful for students with disabilities? For the same reasons that they are useful for anyone. They are intuitive, flexible, and portable. Pretty much anything you can think of is doable with a handheld device or computer. As “they” say, there’s an app for that. Although still prohibitively expensive for many people, they are even becoming relatively affordable for most.

Technology is changing lives every day. In my work, I have seen children with autism benefit greatly from the boon in technology that we all enjoy and take for granted. My introduction to this new world started when a mom showed me this great new program called Proloquo2go that she had downloaded to an iPod touch for her non-verbal son. Before my eyes, this child who I had worked with for years and whose very limited communication occurred with a picture exchange system, began to navigate multiple folders and screens to ask for the toys and food that he wanted. Frustration decreased, along with associated behavior problems. The iPod was small, portable, looked cool, and was for all of these reasons immensely more acceptable to the family than the bulky, messy binder that we had been trying to get them to carry, trailing laminated picture cards and bristling with Velcro. Best of all, the child really seemed so much more motivated to use this device to communicate than we had ever seen before.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen many more students with autism use communication apps on iPads and iPhones. These devices are much less expensive, smaller and more portable, more flexible, and easier to program and use than the old-fashioned alternative augmentative devices that we used to see non-verbal students using. Best of all, parents can buy these devices themselves, and maintain control of the endless possibilities available to their children.

Parents of children with autism have found a vast world of support and information available to them on the internet, right from the safety and comfort of their homes. Videos, blogs, support groups, scientific articles, and so much more are just clicks and keystrokes away. Of course, parents must remember that the internet is uncontrolled and that they must be wise consumers of the information that they get online, and few people are more vulnerable to misinformation than those desperate to help their children.

Where can technology take us? Here are just a few more examples:

  • Parents of children with autism use technology to record events throughout the day, allowing them to capture information that will help professionals to help them to help their children.
  • Professionals use Smartphone Apps  to gather and share data efficiently and accurately.
  • Children enjoy interactive games that present language tasks and learn to discriminate words, pictures, objects, letters, numbers, etc.
  • Students are motivated to work for access to videos, games, and audiobooks on their devices. Never has positive reinforcement been so easy to tote around for so many kids.
  • Older individuals with autism are able to socialize and network on a level playing field thanks to social media, where they don’t have to worry about facial expressions, tone of voice, and other social cues, and where they can have time to process and even get assistance with social responses.
  • Students who find phone conversations difficult can stay in touch with family and friends via text messages. Parents can even subtly prompt their kids via text message and by setting alerts on smart phones – to remember to start a conversation, get going on their homework, walk the dog, or even turn off the computer already!
  • Video modeling, a powerful teaching tool that has deep roots in the research literature, is easier than ever thanks to portable devices that record and play back videos at the tap of a screen.
  • The Boston Globe recently reported the story of Matthew Emmi, a boy with severe autism who was able to make his bar mitzvah in his family’s temple with the use of an iPad.

Finally, I want to turn to the brave new world of online education. Quite in contrast to the first little boy that I mentioned who uses an iPod as his voice, there is a population of individuals with autism who can speak, who are cognitively able to achieve higher education, and who can succeed academically – but who are reluctant to deal with the confusing, social, organizational chaos that can be a college campus. Technology can open doors for these students, too. Online education is becoming more acceptable and more standard, and even traditional campuses are presenting online and hybrid offerings.

I’ve been involved in creating a completely online Bachelor’s degree program for The Sage Colleges. The Achieve Degree is designed to use technology to meet the specific needs of students on the autism spectrum. While this program can benefit anyone who would like to learn online and would be appropriate for students with a variety of challenges, including social and other anxieties, learning disabilities, and medical fragility, the Achieve Degree is built around the specific needs of students with autism. The online platform has many benefits. First and foremost, students do not have to navigate a campus, leave their homes and support systems, and conform to a schedule that might be difficult for them. We are able to present course content in multiple modalities (written, visual, audio), and students can access content as many times and in as many ways as they wish. We are also able to offer them a variety of assessment experiences, from written to audio submission of work, and choice of test modalities (essays and short answers vs. multiple-choice and true/false).

Technology also allows for students to participate in the Achieve Degree coursework from all over the world – and to receive one-to-one mentoring from Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs). Using email, phone, Skype, and other interactive tools, each student works for up to three hours per week with a specially trained mentor. These same tools are used to facilitate social interactions between students, and to provide direct and personal contact with professors. This is not online learning in a social-emotional vacuum, and it’s most certainly not self-study or “college light.” This is the full 120-credit, academically-rigorous curriculum that any other Sage College undergraduate student experiences. While most of the work is asynchronous and students can learn, study, and perform on their own schedule, they do have weekly due dates to meet and expectations and standards for their work. The degree is a Bachelor’s of Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Computer Science. Courses in this program were carefully selected to provide a broad, liberal education, along with courses in the growing field of computer science and a selection of business courses to prepare graduates for competitive employment. We also include 12 one-credit “Life Labs,” which address areas that would be useful to any young college student: time management and organization, personal finance, writing for college, social communication, personal goal-setting, interviewing skills, and more.

We at the Sage Colleges are very proud of the Achieve Degree and what it can mean for students with autism. Having the opportunity to use technology in yet another innovative way to help these students to meet their personal goals and to get the college education that many of them never thought they could have has been a most rewarding and fulfilling journey. We are only at the very beginning of seeing the possibilities – as a society making use of advances in technology that occur on a daily basis, and as a college making use of every opportunity to bring education to everyone who wants it.


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2 Responses to “Autism in the Age of Technology”

  1. While I am greatly appreciative of technology and its benefits for autism, it’s startling to me that most people have a hard time defining the benefits for children with physical disabilities. Startling, frustrating and really annoying…if we can stop segregating the value of the tools for just one spectrum or a certain type of disability, then maybe everyone will benefit? Even the “typical” kids! Wouldn’t that be nice?

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