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How Technology Can Help?

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions may have good technology skills and feel comfortable using devices such as a tablet or a computer for communication, an educational activity, work related task or for entertainment.

Technology allows for adaptability and can increase motivation. The portability of a hand held device means that it can be flexibly used in a variety of circumstances for different purposes. The cost of these devices is being reduced all the time which makes it easier for more people with ASC to get access to a cool, mainstream device that can support their communication, learning and importantly, promote peer acceptance.

Technology can support in the following areas:

  • social communication and interaction
  • memory
  • sensory processing difficulties
  • fine motor skills
  • literacy
  • visual thinking
  • controlling emotions and choosing appropriate behaviour
 

Technology to support social communication and interaction

Technology can be particularly helpful for people on the autistic spectrum who have difficulties with their social communication and interaction. Used for this purpose, it is referred to as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

AAC covers a wide range of strategies, some that do not invlove technology such as gesture and signing, but many do including symbols, word boards, communication boards and books, as well as communication aids. The purpose in using them is to enhance communication, not to replace or inhibit existing skills. There is no evidence that using AAC negatively impacts speech and language development.

The AAC available and principles for effective implementation for people with ASC are no different from any other individual with complex communication support needs.

Using Visuals to Support Understanding

Many AAC strategies are visual and relatively static. Spoken language, on the other hand is auditory and always transitory by nature. Some people process information better when they are looking at pictures or written words to help them visualise spoken information (for more about this see below - technology to support visual thinking).

Visual supports for communication often take the form of picture symbol sets used through pointing by those in the environment to supplement their speech. As well as supporting understanding, this also provides a model to the individual on how they can use symbols to get a message across. This teaching technique is often referred to as Aided Language Stimulation.

There are different picture symbol sets and software for printing visuals, including:

  • Boardmaker using Picture Communication Symbols (PCS)
  • Matrix Maker Plus which uses Widgit symbols, SymbolStix and Inclusive Technology symbols

People with ASC can benefit from the use of symbols in their environment and within their AAC system, whether printed (low tech) or electronic (high tech).

Examples of Low Tech AAC systems

Some low tech systems have been designed primarily for use by people with ASC, these include:

  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) - designed to teach people with ASC the basic concept of communication. At its core, is the shaping and developing of communication activity, encouraging the individual to give a symbol to another person. That person giving the desired object in return.
  • Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD) - an approach which involves giving individuals access to a large vocabulary of words in a symbol communication book, based on the way that we use language socially and taught through modelling.  (It is also available in some communication devices and apps).

Assessment for AAC

Assessment of skills for using AAC is essential when matching a person’s communication needs to the technology available. A speech and language therapist can usually carry this out, which would include information on the individual's:

Language skills - understanding of the meaning of words, and how they can be combined into phrases to form meaning and understanding how symbols or written words in their AAC system can be used to expressive language themselves.

People with ASC may not pay attention, take spoken language literally and have limited/no speech. Technology can support people with ASC to develop their understanding and use of language and provide them with a for speech output system.

Operational skills - this is the development of the technical skills needed to operate the technology, such as switching on, navigating pages, using different access options and involves sensory/perceptual and cognitive demands.

For people with ASC this may be are area of strength, as many are particularly interested in and have the sensory and physical skills to use the technology.

Social skills - this is the understanding of the social roles in communicating and how we connect with other people, such as when to speak and use language for different social functions, including making requests, relaying information, giving opinions.

Strategic skills - this is about making the best use of what communication skills you have, in different situation and with different people. It involves knowing when to use different communication strategies (in combination) such as gestures, signs, vocalisations, aids to communicate effectively.

Some people with ASC have limited social skills. They may want to interact with others, but lack the skills and means to do so, or they may be inherently uninterested in communicating. They can learn how to interact with others if they are taught the skills and a communication method(s).

Learn more about AAC Assessment.

Learn about making communication goals and monitoring outcomes through the CODES Framework.

Essential Environmental Factors

For people with ASC to develop effective communication, they require appropriate support from others in their environment. In order for the individual to practice and develop their AAC system they must have communication opportunities, such as making choices, expressing opinions and shared reading and good communication partners to facilitate interactions.

Learn more about AAC and strategies for communication partners.

Learn about CALL Scotland's Symbols for All free symbol resources for inclusive learning and communication.

Examples of High Tech AAC systems

These are devices that speak and/or produce text, ranging from simple buttons or basic pages that speak when touched, to full communication systems. Some are based on mainstream equipment such as mobile devices, tablets and laptops, others use specially designed equipment. Most require selection and download of AAC apps or software.

There are many communication apps for people with complex communication support needs. CALL Scotland have a collection of tried and tested apps in our downloadable AAC App Wheels. These include picture exchange apps for people with ASC:

  • Grace (iPad/Android)
  • SPEAKall! (iPad/Android)
  • So Much 2 Say (iPad) - SymbolStix symbols
  • Pictures Can Talk (iPad) - Mulberry symbols
  • PECS IV+ (iPad) - PECS images

Learn more about high tech AAC.

 

Technology to help with memory issues

Working memory is the system that actively holds multiple pieces of transitory information in the mind, where they can be manipulated. Working memory is part of the executive functions, a specific area where individuals where autism tend to perform poorly. When information is complex greater demands are made on the working memory.

How can technology help?

You can record reminders and notes with bespoke audio recording devices, software or apps or, use the in-built functionality of a mobile phone or tablet.

For full information on audio recording devices, software or apps go to our Dyslexia pages / Using Audio to support writing and notetaking

 

In-built functionality of a mobile phone or tablet

A mobile device (phone, tablet) has a number of features (e.g. calendar, alarm clock, reminders app as well as texting) that can be useful for someone with memory issues.

This could be used for:

  • School / university / workplace notes
  • To Do lists
  • Sequence of activities
  • What do next list - with alert prompt if needed
  • Reminders set with device calendar (independent)
  • Text reminders (prompted)
 

Technology to support sensory processing difficulties

Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behaviour, and can have a profound effect on a person's life.

Sometimes an autistic person may behave in a way that you wouldn't immediately link to sensory sensitivities. A person who struggles to deal with everyday sensory information can experience sensory overload, or information overload. Too much information can cause stress, anxiety, and possibly physical pain. This can result in withdrawal, challenging behaviour or meltdown.

How can technology help?

Technology can support the following areas of sensory sensitivity:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Touch

A major benefit of using technology is in allowing each user to customise the computer screen to suit individual visual preferences.

Effects of sight hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity 

Hypersensitivity Hyposensitivity
Distorted vision - objects and bright lights can appear to jump around Objects appear quite dark, or lose some of their features.
Images may fragment Central vision is blurred but peripheral vision quite sharp or central object is magnified but things on the periphery are blurred.
Easier and more pleasurable to focus on a detail rather than the whole object Poor depth perception.

How technology can help with sight hypersensitivity or  hyposensitivity

  • Magnifying text by increasing the font size to aid readability.
  • Magnifying information on the computer screen such as the desktop, menus, icons.
  • Increase the size (and colour) of the mouse pointer.
  • Use mouse pointer 'trails' to track mouse movement.
  • Change font and background colours to improve contrast, e.g. yellow on black, white on black.
  • Use a high visibility or larger keys keyboard to aid typing.
  • Vu ruler  ??? equivalent??
  • Safari Reader to clear distracting text from web pages ( or Reader View / Reading View in different browsers)
  • Use zoom functionality on iPad to help focus in on objects or text.
 

How technology can help with sound hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity

 

Effects of sound hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity 

Hypersensitivity Hyposensitivity
Noise can be magnified and sounds become distorted and muddled May only hear sounds in one ear, the other ear having only partial hearing or none at all
May be able to hear conversations in the distance May not acknowledge particular sounds
Inability to cut out sounds - notably background noise, leading to difficulties concentrating Might enjoy crowded, noisy places or bang doors and objects

How technology can help with sound hypersensitivity or  hyposensitivity

Some individuals with auditory sensitivity and are better able to respond to lower sounds.

Using technology it is easy to adjust sound according to the individual’s needs. With headphones on, the individual can listen to an audio book at whatever volume suits them best and can make the difference of them continuing to listen than not engaging at all.

Providing traditional paper books in an alternative form such as digital or e-Books is a good way to engage all learners. Apart from the ability to listen to the text being read out loud (at whatever volume, speed, voice – see The Scottish Voice), books in a digital format can be easily adapted and personalised to suit the reader’s needs. E.g. an individual with autism and visual stress or scotopic light sensitivity may read the text more easily if it is on a coloured background.

For more information on how to access E-books and Audio books go to our Information pages on Dyslexia / Reading and scroll down to two thirds down the page.  

How technology can help with touch hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity

The touch screen is more accessible for individuals with coordination or learning difficulties. For all the gestures used to operate a touch screen device e.g. sliding, pinch and zoom, tapping on the screen to type - a light touch is all that is required.

Research has suggested that touchscreens have a more direct relationship between a user's hand movements and the on-screen effects than a mouse or keyboard (Romeo, Edwards, McNamara, Walker, & Ziguras, 2003) Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice Volume 16, 2017.

The ease of use, visual impact and intuitive interface, combined with the 'cool' factor and portability of a tablet have led to many success stories for students previously not engaging with computers for reasons linked to touch sensitivity or finding the use of mouse and keyboard too complicated. Not having to work out how to use the computer means that the student can fully focus on the particular activity.

Touch screen options

  • iPads v Android tablets: Android tablets are cheaper but there is a wider range of tested and reviewed apps for iPad
  • Smartphone
  • Windows Touch screen device
  • All-in-one Touch screen computer
 

Technology to support fine motor skill difficulties

Often individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions have difficulty with fine motor skills which can make handwriting difficult. Writing with a pencil or pen also requires visual-motor integration (hand-eye co-ordination).

Technology helps reduce the frustration with handwriting or drawing. Using a keyboard, touch screen, or speech-to-text app can reduce the difficulty and exasperation, thus increasing the individual's enjoyment for learning.

Teaching technology for skills such as writing should be employed as early as possible to give individuals with autism the best chance at education and future employment.

How can technology help?

  • Use a computer or tablet for word processing rather than handwriting
  • Apps designed to improve fine motor skills
  • Literacy support software e.g. Clicker 7 - see next section on 'Technology to support Literacy difficulties / software'
  • Speech recognition software / app to negate the need to write or type; simply speak and the words will appear on the screen - 'Technology to support Literacy difficulties / Speech Recognition'

Check out the OT’s with Apps and Technology list of Handwriting apps aimed at fine motor/ visual skill development.

 

Technology to support literacy activities

There are a variety of areas of difficulties when it comes to literacy activities. For many people with autism simply putting a pencil on a piece of paper is challenging. They feel under pressure not to make mistakes and it can result in paper being ripped up and a behaviour meltdown. Others are unable to focus, work independently, understand the task presented or have difficulty planning and formulating their ideas. Some may have underlying additional literacy issues that means they have low levels of reading ability.

How can technology help?

  • Using a computer or tablet for word processing or reading text
  • Supportive writing framework software / apps
  • Text to Speech
  • Spelling support
  • Speech recognition
  • Predictive Text

Using a computer or tablet for word processing or reading text

Using a computer or tablet provides many supportive assistive features that are not possible with paper based activities such as handwriting or reading printed text such as spelling support (writing) or text to speech (reading).

Paper based texts are a barrier to 'print disabled' learners because no adjustments can be made to make it easier for them to read the text.

For full information on free and commerical  E-book sources go to our Information pages on Dyslexia / Reading.

Supportive writing framework software / apps

Features of writing support software include:

  • Spell checking.
  • Word definitions.
  • Homophone checker e.g. here and hear, etc.
  • Text-to-speech.
  • Access to whole words, phrases and pictures/symbols.
  • Word and sentence sets/writing frames.
  • Colour filters, masking and highlighting to help with visual stress.
  • Save text to audio - so you can listen to the text on a portable Mp3 player.
  • Word prediction.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which converts text shown in images to actual text.

Writing support programs include:

iPads and Android

Tablet devices such as iPads and Androids also provide a range of writing support apps including:

  • Text-to-speech apps
  • Word processing apps
  • Note Taking apps
  • Writing support apps

The iPad Apps for Learners with Dyslexia and the Android Apps for Learners with Dyslexia 'wheels' identify relevant apps categorised according to some of the difficulties faces by people with writing difficulties.

 

Text to Speech

If it is difficult to read from a paper book or document then it is possible to get support to do this if you can use an electronic version of the text. e.g. an e-book or a digital version of the word document.

A 'text-to-speech' program or 'text reader' on your computer or tablet reads text from a document or web page to you using a computer voice.
Text-to-speech may help if you:

  • read slowly or with difficulty;
  • get tired, or have visual stress when you read;
  • have problems concentrating when you read;
  • have difficulty following the text with your eyes;
  • want to listen to the text being read out while you do something else.

For full details go to our Information pages on Text to Speech

 

Spelling support

Often there is an apprehension to write a word down due to uncertainty about the spelling and a refusal to attempt the word in case it is wrong. Work done on paper can become messy if there is constant rubbing out of misspelt words which can be very frustrating.

There are many options to address these issues. Technology in the form of a computer, laptop or tablet can provide valuable support.

Here is our full list of Spelling support strategies as part of our Information pages for Dyslexia / Writing pages. (Scroll down to near the bottom)
 

Speech recognition

There is another option to getting text down on paper / on screen when physically handwriting or word processing on a computer or tablet is not possible: using Speech (or voice) recognition software or apps.

Everything you want to know about this in our Speech recognition information pages from what it is, what it can do, how to use it and where to buy it.

In our recent Talking in Exams project one of our schools had great success using Dragon Naturally Speaking software with high school autistic boys who did not produce any written or typed work but were able to talk into the headset and the software picked up their voice and it appeared as text on the screen.  This was very rewarding and motivating for them and it opened up all sorts of possibilities on how this could be used for educational purpose and for life skills.

 

Predictive Text

Word prediction is especially useful for someone who is slow at typing or has limited keyboarding skills. Word prediction can reduce a user’s number of keystrokes by up to 45%. This allows for a greater volume of work to be potentially produced which will help avoid anxiety and stress related to not keeping up with others.

Word prediction software predicts words in context as you write (after the first or second keypress). Word prediction aids spelling accuracy and can increase typing speed. 

Features of word prediction software include:

  • Word banks - list of words grouped together.
  • Topic dictionaries - predicted words relate to the subject, i.e. 'dinosaurs'.
  • Create your own word banks or topic dictionaries.
  • Phonetic spelling corrections, i.e. elefant > elephant.
  • Tools to customise the colour and font.
  • Words spoken back to you to you - roll the mouse over the word.
  • Next word prediction - predicts the next word in context of what is being written.
  • Text-to-speech - you can hear what you are writing.

Dedicated word prediction programs include:

 

Technology to support visual thinking

Some people with Autism Spectrum Conditions are visual thinkers.  They process information better when they are looking at pictures or words to help them visualise information.

Visual supports are tools that can be used to increase the understanding of language, environmental expectations, and to provide structure and support in school, at home, in the community and in the workplace.  For individuals with ASC who have challenges with executive functioning, visual aids can be a helpful of tasks to do and in what order.

Technology can provide accessible and motivating visual support to the individual with Autism Spectrum Conditions.

Some examples of this are:

  • Visual timetables
  • Visual sequences of activities
  • Social stories
  • Mind maps

Visual Timetables

The research of Bryan and Gast (2000) supports the benefits of utilizing visual schedules with students with Autism Spectrum Conditions.

A visual timetable provide a structure to the day and can help with potentially difficult transitions from one activity to another. Timetable templates and symbols can be printed out to create a visual timetable using software such as:

  • Boardmaker using Picture Communication Symbols (PCS)
  • Matrix Maker Maker Plus which uses Widgit symbols, SymbolStix and Inclusive Technology symbols.

It may be preferable for some people to use real photos to help of understanding.

Bryan, L. C., & Gast, D. L. (2000). Teaching on-task and on-schedule behaviors to high-functioning children with autism via picture activity schedules. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 553-567.

Visual sequences of activities

Choiceworks (£6.99) , Picture Me Calm (£1.99) and FTVS HD (£14.99) are all good examples of apps which can be used for creating visual timetables and activities that require sequential steps such as recipes. They are very user friendly in terms of ease of creation and also the end user. There are many options for look, feel and operability of the activity which results in a much better experience for the user. As the app is installed on a phone or iPad with in-built camera and video functionality, you can import photo and videos into the app making it an effective, personalised and (still or moving) visual representation of the task / activity on the schedule.

All these apps appear on the ‘Visual Schedules’ spoke of our CALL Scotland app wheel to support communication needs

Deanne Shoyer, a Mum to twin autistic boys has put together a really good list of 10 great visual support apps.

Social stories

Social stories were created by Carol Gray in 1991. They are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why. The terms 'social story' and 'social stories' are trademarks originated and owned by Carol Gray

Social stories were developed in order to support individuals with autism to better cope with social situations.

Ali and Frederickson (2006, p. 355)

 

 

Social stories present information visually which can help an individual's understanding of an activity or event. They can help with sequencing (what comes next) and �executive functioning' (planning and organising)

An example of a use app for creating a social story is Book Creator. A book can be created with a page for each step of the sequence / order of activities supported by text, audio, photo and video. If for example, the individual with Autism Spectrum Conditions gets distressed when visiting the dentist then creating a social story with the sequence of events, actual photos of the surgery and maybe a quick cheery hello 20 second video of the dentist will alleviate the anxiety. The book can be read / listened to / watched repeatedly and after the visit, an additional page could be added with the individual leaving the surgery with a smile and a thumbs up.

Our Story - Free digital storytelling app for social stories and more. It can help develop language and social skills for an individual with autism. Very user friendly and easy to use.

The American Friendship Circle blog  has some excellent articles with comprehensive lists of assistive software and apps.  Have a look at this one they have compiled on programs, websites and apps for making social stories.

Autism Speaks is dedicated to advancing research into causes and better treatments for autism spectrum disorders and related conditions; increasing understanding and acceptance of autism spectrum disorders; and working toward solutions for the needs of individuals with autism and their families across the spectrum and lifespan through advocacy and support.

They have some examples of social stories you can use on their website and also a link to using Powerpoint templates to create social stories.

The CALL Scotland infographic on ‘Using Book Creator’ has many ideas on how to use the app not just for social stories but to develop communication, organisational skills and to support literacy.

Mind Maps

It can be very hard for an individual with autism to process what you tell them but they can understand so much more easily if you provide visual supports along with the words.

Apps for mind mapping

Popplet app £4.99

Inspiration Mind mapping  £6.99

Kidspiration  £6.99

Mind Genius   Free (in-app purchases)

Mind Meister  Free (in-app purchases)

 

Controlling emotions and choosing appropriate behaviour

Living with autism can lead to problems making decisions, controlling emotions and choosing appropriate behaviour. In challenging situations or when feeling anxious, it can become even harder to process thoughts, leading to heightened anxiety and sometimes crisis situations.

How technology can help

Brain in Hand gives easy access to personalised support from an app on your phone. It's packed with features to help you remember activities, reduce anxiety and feel supported.

It's accompanied by remote support from The National Autistic Society to help you at times when you need extra help.

Together this helps you achieve your goals - whether that's travelling independently, staying in school, going to college or university, starting work for the first time or just learning how to deal better with life's up and downs

When using technology, children with autism:

  • can learn new skills;
  • are often more motivated;
  • often show better concentration;
  • often initiate more contact with those around them, eg talking to their peers or showing teachers and parents what they have done;
  • can be an expert, make choices and direct their own learning and play;
  • might find ways to regulate their well-being - watching the same YouTube clip over and over might seem pointless, but it might be helping your child to manage their anxiety or just relax.