How digital tools increase learning skills for autistic students

The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 out of 68 kids in the United States is on the autism spectrum (one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls). According to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, children with autism are visual learners, which means they learn well from visual media, and therefore technology can be a valuable tool to help this mechanism.

What is ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)?

The term “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD) refers to a complex neurodevelopmental disorder defined by a certain set of behaviors, a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals in different ways and to varying degrees.
The Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by repetitive behaviors, challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, difficulties with executive functioning, poor motor skills and sensory sensitivities.
Autism is often accompanied by medical and mental health issues such as sleep disorders, anxiety and phobias, gastrointestinal disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
There is not one autism but many types of autism, and the most obvious signs tend to appear between 2 and 3 years of age (but in some cases, ASD can be diagnosed as early as 18 months). The Autism Society suggest to parents to look for the following signs in their children:

  • Lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms, such as hand-flapping or twirling objects
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects.

How technology can help students with autism spectrum disorder

Kristie Brown Lofland, Educational Consultant for the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, wrote an article in which she stated that students with ASD learn well from visual media because pictures are their first language – while words are their second language -, and therefore technology can be a valuable tool in their learning process:
“Technology just makes visual images more accessible to the individual with ASD. Computer graphics capture and maintain their attention”, Lofland writes.
Kathryn deBros, Special Educator in an alternative program for students with challenging behaviors, said that technology can also help children with ASD to achieve confidence in social situations:
“A huge part of going to school is learning how to navigate social situations. Students with ASD are totally lost without a roadmap. Technology has been huge in allowing them to bridge that gap between them and the other kids”, deBros told in an interview on The Huffington Post.
But how can technology help children and students with autism? Here are three practical examples.
1. Tools for delivering instruction and presenting information
Each student has preferred styles of learning, and specific needs when receiving information. As we said before, students with autism spectrum disorder are visually oriented, and technology enables teachers and educators to choose from a wide (and always increasing) range of possibilities to present the material, to reach all students, no matter what their abilities are:

  • Interactive whiteboards to engage students presenting the information via video, slideshows or interactive games, providing tactile and kinesthetic experiences.
  • Activities on the Internet, a digital environment where the exploration of concepts and spaces is amplified because it leads to more results in less time.
  • Smartphones and tablets to present information to students via messaging, podcasts, notepads, and voice recordings.
  • Text-to-speech softwares to eliminate the barriers of traditional textbooks.
  • Digital editing tools such as spell checkers, word predictors, online dictionaries and word wizard thesaurus, tools that help students to determine if they are choosing the correct homophones in their writing.
  • Voice dictation tools for writing assistance.

Apps and tools like these are frequently available on smartphone and tablets, but free applications that provide similar supports can also be found online.
2. A friendly robot to feel comfortable in the classroom
Students with ASD are often intimidated by the social aspects of classrooms. To help them dealing with their anxieties, finding confidence in themselves and in their classmates, the Aspect Hunter School (Australia) introduced Sphero robots in the classroom.
Sphero is a spherical robot toy, capable of rolling around, and controlled by a smartphone or tablet. Sphero robots encourage students to explore outside of their comfort zones, and outside of the classroom.
3. Apps to increase verbal skills
As Autism Speaks organization reported, 25% of people with autism spectrum disorder are identified as non-verbal or low-functioning communicators. Special apps called “visual scene displays” can play an important role in the assistance for students struggling with verbal skills.
Apps like Speech with Milo or SceneSpeaks, in fact, help children and young people to develop their storytelling skills by creating their own interactive displays and stories.

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