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 -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 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 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 population. Our studies have included
- Online surveys and interviews with parents of children with autism, asking how technology is used in their home, including a comparison of attitudes and practices in the UK and Spain
- Independent evaluation of the use of iPads as individual learning aids in an autism-specific school
- Development of an early intervention iPad app for preschoolers with autism using co-design with autistic children, parents and professionals
- A randomized controlled trial (the same methods as is used when testing new drugs) of the app
- Development of an online simulator to help teachers and other adults gain an insight into the sensory experience of someone with autism
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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