IT serves as a social ‘bridge’ for autistic children

Marcino, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
Marcino, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

As a teenager with autism, Bethan Jones is coping with daily life and studying for a career as a beautician in a way that her mother, Kate, had never expected. This has been made possible with the help of a high-tech mobile phone app that links her directly to her own support worker when her stress levels become too much.

The 17-year-old from near Liverpool, UK, has been using the cloud-based app Brain In Hand for the past 12 months, not only to plan basic daily activities, such as using public transport to college and attending lessons on time, but also to give her strategies for facing exams and for dealing with fellow students.

Mobile and iPad-based learning has long been considered a valuable education tool for children with autism because of its predictability and reusability, as well as the opportunity it provides to personalise learning, repeat activities, and create a safe learning environment. A large number of tablet and mobile systems have been delivered specifically to support autistic children academically. Now some experts in the field of IT and autism are asking whether the strength of IT lies more specifically in its ability to help these youngsters handle the learning environment.

The way that Bethan uses IT for life and social support perfectly illustrates this. On her phone, she has a series of coping strategies, devised with her mother and her support worker, which help her deal with challenges such as interacting with classmates, handling anxiety in exams, and deciding what to do if things do not go to plan. She also has a means of logging her stress levels according to a traffic light system. Pressing the red button puts Bethan straight through to her support worker for advice and reassurance.

The result is that this computer-savvy young woman has survived the transition from school to college (a serious challenge for people with autism), has passed her foundation exams as a beautician, and is working towards the next academic stage. As Kate Jones says: “If she did not have this to help her, she would be a completely different child. Having this mobile technology gives her a strategy to cope with school and learning, other than to walk out of a classroom or not go to school at all.”

Helping access education

Developmental psychologist Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson at Edinburgh University, UK, has been trying to establish just how IT helps autistic children. Her research suggests that its power lies not in teaching specific skills but in helping children access education, as in Bethan’s case. She says: “We need to design studies more intelligently to capture exactly what is going on when a child is working with a piece of educational technology.”

Her Click-East project was divided into two main stages. The first stage was about developing an educational iPad app for young children with autism, and the second stage tested its effectiveness as a successful learning aid. This second stage was a rigorously designed randomised controlled trial, registered on both the UK Clinical Research Network study portfolio and the National Institutes of Health clinical trials register.

“IT is more important in helping to provide a social bridge for children with autism than in teaching them specific skills.”

Her team found that the game didn’t change children’s social behaviours in the real world, but the positive attitudes among participants, the lack of negative effects, and the potential of apps to provide cheap, accessible learning opportunities suggested to her that this approach was worth pursuing further. She thinks that IT is more important in helping to provide a social bridge for children with autism than in teaching them specific skills.

“Whilst I would still say that IT techniques for education and therapy are worthwhile,” says Fletcher-Watson, “we should concentrate on looking at their function in the development of self-efficacy and how they help children integrate into mainstream classrooms.”

Social entry point

The sense of community felt by teenagers using IT is evident and offers an obvious social entry point for autistic youngsters. Apps such as Tellagami can allow the autistic teenager to create an avatar to give a presentation on their behalf and answer in class, which can enable them to participate fully educationally without putting themselves under unbearable emotional stress.

Fletcher-Watson wants to know more about the power of apps and is embarking on a study of autistic children aged 3-4 years to establish whether digital games change the social dynamic between the children. Her early experiments in Belgium suggest that the introduction of an iPad loaded with a game acts as a powerful catalyst for previously unseen offline social interaction between classmates.

“It is not the educational content that is the problem; it is the learning routes that create the barriers, the way subjects are taught, and the way that autistic children have to understand information.”

According to Fletcher-Watson, most people use their mobile phone and apps to improve their quality of life in some way, but not for education. She believes this applies to autistic youngsters too, although studies have not yet identified the exact benefit for this specific population.

She says: “It is not the educational content that is the problem; it is the learning routes that create the barriers, the way subjects are taught, and the way that autistic children have to understand information. That is what we should be addressing with technology.”

Help at hand:
  • The speed of advances in apps and wearables suggests that breakthroughs will soon be available for assessment. A graduate of the University of British Columbia, Andrea Palmer, along with her team at Awake Labs is currently developing a wearable device called Reveal. The device is designed as a warning system to help prevent meltdowns in children with autism. At the same time, autistic children, teenagers, and adults can use it for self-regulation.
  • The speed of advances in IT is providing opportunities to help autistic children develop, but has also posed challenges to schools and parents attempting to pick out what will work best. Helpful guidelines on technology for parents of children with autism have been published by the National Autistic Society. A similar guide for schools helps teachers interested in introducing new technology to support learners with autism.