Saturday, 1 August 2015

Network Autism: Technology and Autism

Autistic adults and children alike are often enthusiastic consumers and users of technology. This can be an area where the abilities associated with autism – like good visuo-spatial learning, and rapid comprehension of rule-based systems – are put to good use.  Using technology in classroom learning and for homework can play to an autistic child’s strengths and preferences. Playing video games or apps for fun is also beneficial, giving children and teenagers with autism a chance to shine, and something to talk about in the playground.  

However, encouraging autistic people to use technology for education and in their free time is controversial. In particular, official guidelines from organisations such as the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health suggest that young children especially should not have too much ‘screentime, with some individuals recommending a total ban for under-3s. This seems to eliminate technology from the range of potential methods for delivering so-called “early intervention”, which aims to help pre-schoolers with autism learn key developmental skills.  

There are also autism-specific worries about technology. Autistic individuals behave in a way which seems obsessive and hard to manage, and there is concern that the appeal of devices like iPads could be a focus of obsession. Perhaps most powerfully of all, given that autism is defined by a difficulty forming social relationships, the sense that technology is anti-social makes it seem uniquely inappropriate.   

So we have a conflict here, between the positive aspects of technology – ubiquity, fun, motivation, play-to-strengths – and the negative – bad for children, focus of obsession, anti-social.  

This is where research can really make a difference. Researchers in the field have a responsibility to probe the claims being made and to find ways to direct the power of technology to have a positive influence. I’ve employed a number of different methods in an attempt to build an autism-specific evidence base for the use of technology with this populationOur studies have included 

From this work we have created guidelines for parentsguidelines for schools and a series of app reviews which are all free to download from the DART (development / autism / research / technology) website. I’d say the findings can be distilled into about three core messages.  
  1. Technology is neither a solution nor a problem. It is how technology is used that makes a difference between a positive and a negative outcome. 
  1. Just because people really like technology that doesn’t automatically mean that it is bad for them.  Technology is not the same as sweets. We don’t need to limit quantity, instead we need to focus on quality.  
  1. Often it is the spin-off benefits from using technology which make the biggest difference.  Yes, a child might learn to spell from an app, but for an autistic child the chance to learn independently, at their own pace, and to use a gadget which impresses their peers, might be even more important.  

I strongly believe in the power of technology to provide transformative, effective, accessible supports to the autism community. To have the greatest benefit these need to be grounded in research evidence, properly evaluated. I hope that researchers can work towards a properly founded understanding of how, when and why to use technology for the greatest benefit  

Sue is a Chancellor's Fellow based at the Patrick Wild Centre for research into autism, Fragile X Syndrome and intellectual disability. She is a developmental psychologist with an interest in the application of psychological research methods to questions with clinical, educational and societal impact. She is interested in how children develop and learn, and in particular in cases where this follows an unusual trajectory, especially autism.  

For more information: 

No comments:

Post a Comment