Autism and Technology: Helping Individuals with Autism Communicate

Today’s guest blog post is by Alexander Price, who teaches children with autism and works collaboratively with the families of children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, as well as the agencies that fund their treatment, to provide education, training, and conduct research towards finding solutions. Previously, Alexander worked for Community Options assisted living group homes for adults with developmental disabilities.

By Alexander Price (@asprice18)

Technology in the classroom has been a rising hot topic in the special education community. In the six years that I’ve worked within this field, Ive witnessed technology get leaner and more efficient, especially with augmentative communications devices. These devices have been a mainstay of the autism community for years to help nonverbal individuals communicate with their families, teachers, job coaches, and the general public. Known widely as “communication boards, these devices have eased requirements to learn American Sign Language or Signed English in order to communicate with individuals with autism.

However, these communication boards often come with a hefty price tag. School districts – or even the parents themselves – are forced to spend upwards of $4,000 per device to help facilitate a basic need for those individuals. The communication boards were often large, cumbersome, and (especially important in the autism field) very stigmatizing. The devices could cost significant amounts of money to replace or repair if damaged, costs the user likely does not understand.

In 2008, there was enthusiastic discussion around using Apple’s iPod Touch as a cheaper, more efficient alternative to communication boards. By then, the cost of a refurbished iPod Touch had dropped to around $200, and an app had been developed that mimicked the functionality of the speech software used on old, clunky communication boards. At the time, I was a strong supporter of standardizing the iPod Touch as communication devices for individuals with Autism, for several reasons. First, the iPod Touch is lightweight and compact, allowing for a person to carry it in their pocket or backpack, rather than on a strap around their neck, like traditional communication boards. Second, it is cheaper to both buy and replace, making it a more economically appealing choice. Most importantly, the popularity of the iPod Touch removes the stigmatizing effect that an individual experiences with a large communication board; the iPod Touch is age-appropriate, making it harder to visually identify the individual as one with a developmental disorder.

With the recent explosion of the tablet market, launched by another Apple product, the iPad, we are coming closer and closer to standardizing the use of mobile technologies for individuals with autism. With millions of apps being developed and the power of portable computing, mobile technology goes far beyond facilitating communication for nonverbal individuals. One obvious, yet only relatively recently explored idea is the use of mobile devices to give a schedule of daily activities for individuals, both nonverbal and verbal alike. Adhering to a regular, daily agenda is critical for individuals with autism, who have a difficult time dealing with sudden changes to their situation or environment. I’ve seen the unease of not knowing what to expect greatly upset my own students. Where I am currently employed, we provide daily and even moment-to-moment schedules to our learners to ease transitions and allow them to anticipate what will come next. A very basic daily itinerary app will help to surmount a huge obstacle within the autism community.

Over the next few posts I will discuss how technology can help both individuals with autism and those who work with them. Ill discuss technology already in use and speculate about what kind of assistance tech still has to offer to the autism field. Learn something, share your ideas, and discuss the possibilities!

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2 Responses to Autism and Technology: Helping Individuals with Autism Communicate

  1. Interesting developments that make sense.

    I’ve been wondering what will happen when the 1% (1 in 100 children diagnosed with Autism) hit the work world. School is hard enough, but many of these kids will have enough skills to be productive members of society if there is a place for them, I just wonder if the workplace will be able to let them succeed.

  2. Alexander Price says:

    That’s a great observation Brad, and one that needs serious consideration. The age group I work with is getting ready to make that transition, and it tends to be a scary one for families. People on the Autism spectrum are entitled to services up to age 21. After that, it’s up to the families to secure placement in an adult day program or job coaching program. When students enter the classroom I work in, they begin to go to job sites and learn food preparation skills, stocking skills, and cleaning skills as basic foundations to help make them as independent as possible in a workplace environment. We can only do so much, as we have to meet academic standards for the learners as well, so much of their job training will come in the form of an adult day program in a workshop-like setting. Though should be given in all industries, however, in successful ways of incorporating people on the Autism spectrum into the workplace, as it will help to foster individual independence, and even provide a measure of economic security beyond family and government assistance.