Technology and ASD: A match made where??

autism cookiesNot that long ago (or so it seems to me), I bought my first calculator, which cost about as much as a smartphone does now. It was great. It could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, was the size of a paperback novel, and could work without being plugged in for at least part of the school day. And after using it for a few weeks, I decided I could find more answers in less time using my trusty old slide rule. As the years passed, technology and I both matured, and I often find technology to be quite helpful, and other times it just gets in the way. But what does this ancient history have to do with ASD? Great question!

Technology has come a long way since my first calculator. Computers and “smart devices” seem to be everywhere as they become more affordable. If computers can help us remember things (that calendar and address book on your smartphone or tablet), find out about things (Google is now also a verb, you see), and work “smarter not harder” at school or in our careers, there has to be some technology that will make things easier for individuals with ASD. Right?

The news about technology helping individuals with ASD is all over. “Smart Technology May Help Kids With Autism Learn, Communicate.” “How Technology has Changed the Face of Autism.” “Using Tablets to Reach Kids with Autism.” There are even YouTube videos that show the miracles of technology. Clearly it works. Let’s go buy a tablet (often an iPad), get some apps from the App Store, and get our miracle!

Hold your horses, partner – it’s not that simple.

You’ve probably heard the old saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Technology is really just a bunch of tools. Tablets and apps are tools. Computers and software are tools. Even purpose-developed assistive technology devices are tools. Each of these tools works differently and serves different purposes. Before we know what tool to use, we need to learn about “the job.” When your neighbor says “Hey, can you help me?” hopefully you ask “help you with what?” rather than grab your hammer and go running over.

The same rule applies in selecting technology for those with ASD. Each person with ASD has a unique combination of skills and challenges. Once these skills and challenges are identified, we can begin finding the tools that help the person use their skills to overcome their challenges. Sounds easy! Not quite. The Apple iPad seems to be everywhere now, and certainly as new versions come out, older versions become pretty affordable. According to the commercials they can do almost anything. So what about buying an iPad and going to the App Store and getting some apps for ASD? Well, I just went to the App Store, did a search for iPad apps for “autism” and found over 500 different apps – some free, many not free. The sheer number of different pieces of equipment, software, and apps that might be helpful for an individual with ASD can be pretty daunting. Time to find some help!

Luckily, every state has a federally-funded program that helps individuals with disabilities explore ways in which technology might be helpful to them. In Illinois, this is the Illinois Assistive Technology Program (often called IATP). IATP provides information about different types of assistive technology, evaluations to identify what tools might be most helpful, and even loaner programs permitting individuals to “test drive” technology and make sure it really is helpful for a specific individual without having to go buy something and hope it works. The specialists from IATP go anywhere in the state to help individuals with ASD and other disabilities explore how technology can help improve their quality of life. They will even provide information and training to schools and teachers in how to maximize the educational benefits of assistive technology being used by students. And, they’ll assist in IEPs as well. I encourage you to explore their website. And while you’re there, be sure to check out the DVD they have created on safety and ASD (it’s not free, but it is excellent and inexpensive). To find out more about IATP, go to their website, or contact Suzanne Woods by email.

And before you think technology is too much trouble, watch this short ABC World News report on the impact of technology on one teenage girl with ASD.

We’d like to hear about your experience with technology and ASD. Leave a comment and let us know what technology you’ve found helpful!

Russell J. Bonanno, M.Ed.
TAP Program Manager

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