By Philip G. Wenger
Approaching a new world for the first time can be alarming for children with Autism. In the past, methods to assist children in adapting to autism have been generalized and alienating. The digital age has brought wonderful advancements for aiding autistic children in their daily tasks, whether it be education, communication, or even with regular every-day activities.
Education for kids with autism presents additional challenges for students, educators, and parents. Low-tech solutions for helping children with autism in school have been used successfully, including Picture Exchange Communication (PEC) and daily schedules to help organize the child’s day; however, there is much room for improvement. Autism creates the need for visual learning techniques. The Monarch Center for Autism in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a school for Autistic Children who aren’t able to learn as well in a regular public school, has partnered with Children’s Hospital Boston and Dr. Howard Shane to design an autism education program based on visual techniques for learning, communicating, instructing, and expressing. This program applies computers and other high-technologies to provide an ideal visual learning experience for the students. The more tangible and visual the experience, the more the students are able to connect and learn, and modern technology greatly reinforces this principle. The Monarch Center was able to find a variety of useful hardware for their students including Smart Boards, iPads, and other useful handhelds or computers, but no software available to the organization suited their needs. Instead, The Monarch Center Designed their own software called VizZle, a learning platform compatible with most computers and devices. VizZle provides students with media, design tools, and interactive lessons all curated to the individual learner with autism support. Teachers can use VizZle’s pre-set templates to easily make a lesson that is visually and interactively orientated and optimized for an individual. Tools like VizZle, which is now open to all schools, are necessary for the increase of autism diagnoses schools must take on. Because of the improvements in technology, implementing these tools will continue to be a cheaper and simpler feat, making individualized and appropriate quality education available to this disabled population.
One of the largest barriers children with autism face is communication. An organization with a plan to aid these children in their process in learning to communicate is the ITAALK Autism Foundation. Interactive Technology Assisting Autistic Little Kids or ITAALK has a goal to help as many kids as possible to learn to communicate the best they can by using iOS devices such as iPads and iPod Touches. They also provide training for families dealing with autism as well as for professionals. The use of an iOS device can be so helpful because of the large variety of assistive apps on the apple app store. Each year ITAALK sifts through and recommends a list of the top 30 apps for helping autistic children. These apps focus on emotions, fine motor skills, vocab, mathematics, schedules, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), and more. A different way communication can be improved for a child living with autism that is not centered around education is the use of social media. Without the real life contact, the child is able to remain comfortable while still being provided with the means for interaction. It is unlikely that the child will state his or her feelings in a post, but just having a way to easily show friends and family what he or she is doing can greatly augment the child’s communication capabilities. Autistic children’s use of social media provides caretakers, parents, and teachers with an additional source of information about how the child is feeling. Another more direct method of understanding a child having difficulty expressing his or herself is using biological methods. Autistic children experiencing anxiety are often unable to communicate their discomfort, and it is important for caretakers to know how the child is feeling. One solution to this challenge is to place a sensor on the skin. Sweat provides a higher level of electrical conductivity that can be measured and read as an increase in the fight-or-flight response. Heart rate and respiratory signals can likewise be used in this matter. While some may see this form of reading emotions to be unreliable, some studies have shown that analyzing emotions with these methods have returned results at over 80% accuracy. The form in which these technologies actually manifest can be of a variety of different wearable technologies, and all forms must provide comfort, clarity, and control. One such emotion-detecting device is a wrist-worn band that can be worn all day long, detecting small fluctuations in stress in real time. To some, this device would be invaluable, but it is important to realize that the tech required for aiding autistic communication needs to be unique for each individual.
Sometimes the communication barriers of autism are broken through within the most unexpected mediums. For example, social media, which gets a bad rap for separating people from real relationships, can actually be a great tool for children with autism to connect to seemingly unreachable people. Another surprising example of an unexpected platform is depicted in the book A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart. In this story, a father of an autistic boy finds a way to connect with his son though the popular game Minecraft. Minecraft provides the player with a world of blocks that can be used to build many complex structures. Every block follows its own set of laws, and the world the game makes is full of order and sense. Creativity can flourish in this game because of its open-ended design, and so a father can use it to better understand his son, based off his creations. The software of all kinds, whether it be a tool, a media, or even a game, can be used to aid children with autism in many ways. Likewise, hardware with all of the capabilities of modern technology can provide not only a wonderful learning and communicating tool for autistic children, but also as a method for researchers to better understand the emotions of these kids.
Modern Technology has the potential to continue to profoundly improve the lives of autistic children with improvements in communication, education, and simple, daily tasks. As the world, we are leaving the past full of misunderstandings and anxieties and entering a future of compatibilities in new relationships for all children. The many options and concepts of technology for aiding children with autism surely will provide these kids with hope in adapting to this world that is so foreign to them.
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Stafford, Lauren. “Technology Transforms the Autism Classroom.” Autism Spectrum Quarterly, 2011. Monarch Center for Autism, www.monarchcenterforautism.org/press-releases/technology-transforms-the-autism-classroom-of-the-future. Accessed 29 Mar. 2017.
Stark, Harold. “A Boy Made of Blocks: An Insightful Journey into Technology and Autism.” Forbes, 2 Mar. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/haroldstark/2017/03/02/a-boy-made-of-blocks-an-insightful-journey-into-technology-and-autism/#528972b611a9. Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.