Autism Spectrum Disorders & Implications for
Learning with Technology
With a relatively light background in special education, I am always trying to learn more effective ways to support all of my students in the classroom. Given the freedom to choose a topic, my immediate inclination due to its prevalence and variety was to pursue more information on the topic of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
The Autism Science Foundation (2013) define autism as “developmental disabilities that cause substantial impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations. The thinking and learning abilities of people with ASDs can vary—from gifted to severely challenged. An ASD begins before the age of 3 and lasts throughout a person’s life.” This great variance in the spectrum has made it challenging for me as a teacher to grasp how to reach, react and support students with ASD.
The causes for ASDs are still being researched. So far there is “no known cure” and “no single factor that’s been identified as the cause” (Whelan, 2009, p. 31). For a while it was widely believed that vaccines were an environmental cause to ASDs but “after a tremendous amount of research, scientists have concluded that vaccines do not cause autism” (Autism Science Foundation, 2013). Because the causes of ASD involve such a a complex system, the brain, it is difficult to pinpoint exact causes. Scientists have found several gene mutations which lead to a predisposition for ASDs usually combined with some environmental or external factor (Autism Speaks Inc., 2013). There is treatment such as therapy and medications available for ASDs and scientists agree that early intervention leads to significant improvement in skills (Autism Science Foundation, 2013).
Implications for Learning
We have students in our mainstream classroom already diagnosed with ASDs and on specific behavior or treatment plans. However, especially in an early elementary setting, we are also teaching students who may be on the spectrum but have never been diagnosed for a myriad of reasons. Above is an image of some of the more commonly seen behaviors amongst students with ASD.
As Whelan (2009) states, because there are so many unique qualities to each child, “there is no one-size fits all approach to supporting children with autism”(p.34). However, much research supports that technology has created new opportunities that were not previously possible for students, teachers and families affected by ASD. It is also a common conclusion that many people with ASD feel more comfortable interacting with technology than another human being (Autism Speaks, 2013). Currently, the Autism Speaks organization is sponsoring an initiative called “Hacking Autism” stemming from the Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative. The organization put out this documentary describing the immense impact technology has had in breaking down barriers for children with autism. I found it a very touching description.
After watching I Just Want to Say , I was struck by the impact of the invention of touch screen monitors versus a regular computer and keyboard for children with ASD. Tablets, touch screen monitors, iPods and smart phones with their ability to be controlled with one action and simplicity in design open completely new worlds for these students. Dr. Temple Grandin has a list of recommendations for teaching students with autism and specifically refers to them as being “visual thinkers” and having a need for structure (Grandin, 2002). Technology has afforded us with the ability to make visual thinking and structure for those students a possibility every day. For example in a study by Carlile, Reeve, Reeve, & DeBar (2013), autistic students used an iPod as an avenue to schedule their leisure time through structured pictures. The potential to develop skills that were not possible before has led to a boom in ideas of how technology can help autistic children. The following is just a short summary of the variety of ways technology is helping address the social interaction, communication and behaviors and interests in people with ASD.
List of Autism Apps– Autism Speaks
This website has a list of over 200 Autism related applications for tablets. It is separated into categories like communication, social skills, recreation, ect. This is a great resources for teachers who have access to tablets in the classroom.
Robots (Social & Communication Skills)
Many times, people with ASD are described as robotic so why is interacting with robots making such break throughs in communication and social skills? Many people with ASD have difficulty interpreting social situations and facial cues. Simple robots like the Keepon, Bandit and NAO, have very few and simple emotional cues to interpret and therefore are less intimidating to interact with than a human being for a person with autism (Autism Speaks, 2013). Following are several examples as to how robots are being used for developing social and communication skills in people with ASD:
Autism & Robots Special on The Today Show:
There are many technology tools being used in the classroom to assist students with ASD.
At the Learning Technologies for Autism website, there are specific links with assistive technology for each skill that may need developing in those affected by Autism. Some of my favorites that I found at this website were Vsked a visual scheduling tool and Vizzle a software that helps teachers create evidence-based interactive visual lessons that correlate and track IEP and curriculum goals.
Autism Science Foundation. (2013). Autism Science Foundation. Retrieved from http://autismsciencefoundation.org/
Autism Speaks Inc.(2013). Autism Speaks. Retrieved from http://www.autismspeaks.org/
Autism Speaks Inc. (2013, February 26). I Just Want to Say [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/Iu3c8fqBQcA
Boser, K. (n.d.) Learning Technologies for Autism Site. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/site/autismtechnology/
Carlile, K. A., Reeve, S. A., Reeve, K. F., & DeBar, R. M. (2013, May). Using activity schedules on the iPod touch to teach leisure skills to children with autism. Education & Treatment of Children, 36(2), 33+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA335190146&v=2.1&u=msu_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, March 29). Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/autism/facts.html
Gifford, T. (2013, April 25). A Story of Robots and Autism. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/nwJsxLOilcc
Grandin, T. (2002, December). Teaching ASD Children and Adults. Retrieved from http://www.autism.com/index.php/advocacy_grandin_teaching
Schilling, D., & Schwartz, I. S. (2004). Alternative Seating for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Effects on Classroom Behavior. Journal Of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34(4), 423-432.
V., W. W. (2012). iPads & Autism. Technology & Learning, 32(7), 28.
Whelan, D. L. (2009, August). The equal opportunity disorder: autism is on the rise, and it can affect any family. Here’s what you need to know. School Library Journal, 55(8), 30+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA205566146&v=2.1&u=msu_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w