In 2020 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that about 1 in every 54 US children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The prevalence of this disorder makes it essential that parents, family members, and educators understand how to best support children struggling with ASD.
We are going to spend some time here exploring the challenges that children on the spectrum and their parents may experience as well as how technology can be used to help these kids.
Challenges of an autistic child
Children who struggle with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience varying amounts of difficulty mainly in two specific areas.
These children may experience difficulties in social interaction and communication. Additionally, they often have difficulty:
- Developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships
- Being flexible with changes in schedules
- Developing language skills
- Learning to read
- Comprehending what they are reading despite being able to read at the same level as their classmates
- Performing tasks associated with eating and maintaining hygiene
The challenges of raising a child on the autism spectrum can cause parents to feel anxious, depressed, angry, and isolated.
Luckily, research indicates that early diagnosis and the use of technology can help children diagnosed with ASD overcome the challenges that they face.
Technology also provides a great resource for parents. Research indicates that the use of technology helps children identified as existing on the autism spectrum to improve literacy, social-communicative skills, adaptive skills, and to accurately detect the emotions of others.
In 2019 Valencia, Ruser, Quinonas, and Janet reviewed 94 studies and found that the use of technology with children diagnosed with autism is very promising.
What is assistive technology?
If your child has autism, you have no doubt heard the term assistive technology. Although this may conjure images of complex computer systems, the term actually refers to any auxiliary aid, device, or tool (no matter how complex or how simple) that allows a user with a disability to perform tasks that they would find difficult or impossible without this assistance.
Technology supports individuals with disabilities in completing daily living activities, learning information more efficiently, completing work tasks, and simply enjoying leisure time.
Assistive technology can be used to help your child learn to use language. You will find some language apps come with lots of pictures. There are some apps that allow you to upload pictures of your own.
Assistive technology can also be used to help your autistic child to improve in other areas where they experience challenges. For example, children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty identifying their feelings. Apps like “Touch and Learn” allow kids to see what specific emotions look like on the faces of other children. This particular app provides realistic photographs of young children expressing a wide range of emotions.
When you child accesses this app, they hear a voice provide the name of an emotion. The player then sees four photographs of young children. The point of this game is to correctly identify the child expressing the emotion you have been given. If the correct photograph is chosen, the player is rewarded with a large green checkmark.
Technology that can help autistic children with communication:
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
This is a particular type of assistive technology that helps people with autism by promoting independence and increasing social interactions and improving communication. AAC can help your child communicate his/her needs. When using AAC apps with your child, you will want to first model the use of the device. In the beginning, you will want to reward your child for using the device even if you are unsure of what the child is trying to tell you.
Once you have your child constantly using the device, you will want to reward the child for communicating with the device. For example, early on, you will want to provide a reward for the child playing with the AAC. After the child is used to playing with the device, you will want to begin being more selective about rewards. If you ask your child to use the AAC to tell you want they want for dinner, you will only want to reward responses that answer that question, for example.
Slowly, you will want to move to rewarding your child for communicating in more and more complicated ways. This encourages your child to develop more complex ways of communicating with you.
Perhaps the most obvious use of technology for children diagnosed with autism, is to provide help with communication skills. There are many apps available that support nonverbal individuals in making their needs known. You will find a long list of apps that can help your child learn to create multi word sentences. You will also find many apps that help your child identify letters and letter sounds to support the learning of reading skills.
Generally, when we talk about communication skills, we tend to forget that more than half of what we communicate is done without words. Subtle nonverbal communication like facial expressions and body language are difficult for autistic children to pick up on.
However, you will find a variety of apps that can help your child with this aspect of communication also. There are several apps that help autistic children with strong verbal skills, learn to identify different emotions using photographs or drawings. This will help your autistic child learn how to read nonverbal communication and will help them develop healthy social interactions.
This is identified as one of the top options for improving language skills. The app allows for a great deal of personalization. Settings and displays can be customized to support your child’s motor skill level as well as visual needs. Prologue2Go also allows you to have words sounded out with different accents to accommodate your specific needs.
Touch and Learn:
This app provides realistic photographs of young children expressing a wide range of emotions. Children can make identifying emotions a game. When you child accesses this app, he/she will hear a voice name and emotion. Four photographs of young children flash on the screen. The point of this game is to identify the face expressing the emotion that was named. If the correct photograph is chosen, the player is rewarded with a large green checkmark.
For parents looking for assistive games, Otsimo offers a fun and engaging alternative. Otsimo offers an easy-to-use interface with buttons that provide image-words, When your child hits the button, he/sh will hear the word spoken. This app uses bright engaging images and allows your child to play a variety of games that support the learning of vocabulary. Games include puzzles, drawing games, matching games, and learning new sound games for varied play.
Technology that can help autistic children with Modeling Behaviors:
Children on the autism spectrum often have more difficulty with novel activities that other children do. They often don’t pick up on the unwritten rules that accompany new situations. Parents will find that using technology to model the steps for a new activity can help their child build confidence and reduce feelings of anxiety. Whether your child is preparing for a first trip to the library or an airplane ride, technology can help them develop a better understanding of the process.
Model Me Going Places:
This app provided illustrations and instructions to help autistic children understand the unwritten rules that accompany many everyday situations.
This app teaches relationship behaviors in an 8-week social skills awareness program. Designed by parents for children with ASD this app helps your child learn much needed skills like how to initiate a conversation.
Technology that can help autistic children with Scheduling:
Available for ipad, iphone, and ipod, this app offers your child a scheduler that presents tasks in sequential order. Choiceworks provides visual indicators of which tasks have been completed and can help your child feel accomplished by working through what may otherwise seem like an overwhelming number of steps to complete a task. This app is good for helping children develop new schedules for anything from bedtime to schoolwork and can be used to help children soothe when waiting or when they feel out of control of their emotions. This app can be useful in helping your child understand how to establish and meet goals.
Technology that can help autistic children with Motivation:
Children on the autism spectrum enjoy computer games as much as other kids. You will find that there are a great many games out there that can help your child build cognitive skills while at play. These apps are a great addition to the parenting arsenal. Apps with learning games are a great reward for children on the autism spectrum. Whether you are using these apps to motivate your child to complete daily chores or to learn a new skill, your children will love it when you use these educational apps as a reward.
This app was designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum. Zoolingo offers a variety of learning games. Your child will be readily engaged in puzzle games, pop the balloon game, games using nursery rhymes, shapes games, and a game where they are asked to match emotions with facial expressions.
Technology that can help autistic children with Social Skill Development:
Children diagnosed with ASD often lack social skills that build a sense of belonging in traditional classrooms and social groups. Children on the autism spectrum may not follow social norms like waiting their turn, looking the person they are speaking to in the eye, etc. Luckily, these skills can be learned with repetition and patience.
Look in My Eyes Restaurant:
This app engages your child in a series of social skills like practicing making eye contact.
This free app uses gentle encouragement to help children master everyday social cues. This app will help your child recognize and practice facial expressions.
Ways parents can use technology to help with their autistic child's daily activities:
People on the spectrum experience difficulties in developing communication and socialization skills. A child with autism may have difficulty communicating both verbally and non-verbally. They may have difficulty relating to others. They may have a pattern of repetitive behavior, and they may have difficulty being flexible with changes in schedules. Luckily, parents of children on the autism scale can find a wide range of technological devices and apps to help their children learn skills that don’t come naturally for them.
To support your autistic child, you may want to:
Use Devices and Apps That Improve Quality of Life:
Dreampad is a music app that looks like a pillow. This device/app creates gentle vibrations and calming music that lulls your child to sleep. Improved sleep patterns can help your child control feelings of anxiety. Ultimately, better sleep can lead to less stressful days for both you and your child.
Use Your Device as a Reward:
Children diagnosed with autism are often very interested in computers and technology. This means that ipads, cellphones, and computer games are wonderful rewards for completing tasks.
Use Technology as a Model:
Children with ASD often experience anxiety when faced with new situations. Using apps that help your child break down and understand new spaces and activities will help them to control their anxiety levels and great new scenarios with more confidence.
Teach Through Game Play:
Research has found that technology is a great way to support learning for your child regardless of his/her abilities. This is partly due to the fact that using technology as a teaching tool engages many of your child’s senses. Learning apps use bright colors and lights for visual stimulation. They use sounds and words for auditory learning. Your child will push buttons, drag tiles, or slide objects engaging his/her sense of touch. The other wonderful thing about apps is that they can be repeated over and over again. So, if your child requires repetition to learn new skills, technology is a consistent teacher that will never get tired of the same lesson.
What to look for in an app for your autistic child:
Regardless of whether or not you have good technology skills you will most likely want to look for:
Apps that Offer Some Customizability:
You will find many apps that allow you to add your own photographs to visual displays to help engage your child. Other apps will offer you the opportunity to choose the speed or the accent that verbal information is provided in. Although it isn’t necessary that an app be customizable, you may find that having pictures of favorite toys and people is very engaging for your child.
Apps With Pop Up Reminders:
If you are using an app to help your child maintain a schedule, you will want to look for an app that will provide pop-up reminders for special tasks.
Apps That Are Easy to Use:
You will want to make sure that the apps you are considering are easy for your child to use. Some apps have buttons and visual elements that are customizable so a child with visual challenges or poor fine motor skills can use them as easily as children without these particular challenges.
Other Things to Consider:
When you are looking at technology to support your child’s learning, you are going to want to consider issues associated with safety, price, and accessibility. You will want to consider whether to invest in a computer, a pad, or some other smart device.
If your child is young or has difficulties with fine motor skills, it may be best to use a device with a touch screen. Luckily, there are many devices that now feature touch screens. You can find laptop computers, desktop computers, pads, and phones that feature touch screen technology.
Is your child going to be using this technology outside of the home? Does the device need to be lightweight? If your child needs a portable device, you are going to want to be sure that it isn’t too bulky to be easily transported. On the other hand, you are going to want to be sure the device isn’t so small that it can be easily lost. If the device is traveling back and forth to school, you may also want to pay attention to the length of battery life and the ease of recharging.
You are going to want to think about who will need to have access to the device you are looking at. You may want to consider whether the device offers parental controls to allow you to prevent unauthorized access to inappropriate websites.
You will want to make sure that the sound level of the device you are considering allows your child to hear the spoken word elements apps may offer. You will also want to make sure that the visual display is large enough and bright enough for your child to see all of the elements he/she will need to be able to see. If you are using a phone with a small display to identify emotions in an array of photographs, the size of the visual display may create an unnecessary challenge.
Although there are a lot of choices associated with how to use technology with your autistic child, this is an adventure that you and your ASD child should embrace. You will find that there are many free apps that can get you started. If you find that your child responds well to learning with technology, you can find apps designed with your child’s specific needs in mind. Whether your child needs help making his/her needs known, or you simply want an app to help your child remember what tasks he/she needs to complete at bedtime, you will find an app to make both of your lives just a little bit easier.