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Bringing Computer Technology to the Forefront in Autism Education

Individuals with autism often do not learn in the same way that their typical peers do (Geurts & Embrects, 2008; Perkins, et al., 2006; Boucher, 2003; Wilkinson, 1998). To succeed when teaching an individual with autism, a teacher must capitalize on the learner’s strengths. Historically, treatment methodologies have demonstrated that students with autism typically benefit from visual, rather than auditory teaching strategies. In keeping with this modality, we have recently made attempts to teach new skills to some of our students across a variety of curriculum domains. Some areas include expressive language, activities of daily living, speech, socialization, academics and vocational skills. We believe that by integrating technology into our curriculum that we can maximize our intervention time and make education more fun for everyone involved. (Yes we do have fun creating the curriculum)! In the year 2009, technology is so prominent in our daily lives that it is important for educators to introduce technology to individuals with autism spectrum disorders early on in their educational career, beyond the point of using a computer game. As a teacher and clinician, one of the strengths of using technology within curriculum is its versatility (Goldsmith & LeBlanc, 2004; Hetzroni & Tannous, 2004). Using technology can allow teachers to individualize curriculum easily and update it. Updating materials is essential, especially if the student has difficulty or is progressing well and needs to be challenged.

One particular computer program which has been very successful in accomplishing this has been PowerPoint. PowerPoint® is a Microsoft Office® program well known in the business world for more formalized presentations. This powerful program allows one to insert sound, pictures, and video clips. Font styles and background coloring can be manipulated to keep with a given theme. There lies the ability to animate words, pictures and actual slides for added effects. We have taken the capabilities of this program and applied it to our own curriculum objectives for our students. We are using it specifically for children with autism in educational and therapeutic interventions. Students’ individual goals can be addressed through the use of PowerPoint presentations. Some examples of how we are using PowerPoint have recently included: targeting learning of irregular past tense verbs, identifying actions, improving rate of speech, initiating “hi,” imbedding video models, and activity schedules (Rehfeldt, Kinney, Root, Stromer, 2004).

More recently, individuals with autism have been using virtual reality websites (i.e. “second life”) to improve social skills. While technology is certainly exciting and (sometimes) unpredictable, once thing is for certain: The future for children with autism in use of technology is certainly bright! There are both challenges and benefits of using computer-based technology with our learners with autism spectrum disorders (Bosseler & Massaro, 2003; Herrera, Jordan & Vera, 2006).

Challenges When Using Technology

Although we as teachers are finding use of technology to be a successful teaching tool, with all things in life, there are challenges. When moving from computer to computer, different versions of programs must be compatible. In addition, technological breakdowns can cause a student to be unable to address a given goal, should it only be in a one format. Finally, there may be times when a child is unable to access a computer. In addition, creating items to embed within a PowerPoint may be time consuming, such as video clips or pictures. However, the pros have been shown to outweigh the cons, and can certainly be worked around.

Benefits of Using Computer Technology

 There are several benefits to using technology in one’s educational planning. For example, objectives can be targeted, regardless of whether the clinician is physically present. Written, auditory, or visual prompts can be manipulated very easily; changes can be made with ease, such as lengthening or shortening a slide show, depending on level of student success. In terms of collaborating with the home-based team, PowerPoint presentations can be sent home for use with parents and or other therapy providers. Incidentally, they can be sent home using email, and now with cell phone technology, our personal advances in technology include the use of the iTouch and Blackberry, which now afford options for taking photos, videos, and voice notes on the fly. How wonderful these advances have been for teaching our students with Autism!

Dana Battaglia, MPhil, CCC-SLP, is a Speech Language Pathologist and Clinical Coordinator of Outreach Services at the Eden II/Genesis Program. Dr. Mary McDonald is the Director of Genesis/Eden II’s Outreach, Consultation and Research Programs.

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