Independent living for autistic individuals requires a complex set of tasks and increased responsibility for caregivers, who often support independence remotely. Considering how technology can complement this task is crucial to maximizing available resources and enhancing the lives of those individuals. Integrating technology can initially support communication and evolve to enhance other activities of daily living. Building communication skills is an important prerequisite step that supports using technologies to assist in daily routines. For example, if the person doesn’t have the skill to turn off technology, the reminders will be negated and possibly result in frustration and resistance.
What is Smart Technology?
Examples of smart Technology include Amazon Alexa, Amazon Echo Dot, Google Home, and Google Assistant, while there are many more! What makes these devices “smart” is their ability to use artificial intelligence and internet services to automatically communicate wanted information to a user, with remote accessibility.
Starting with Communication
Many who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder require an intervention focusing on the aspects involved in producing or understanding speech and language (Marston & Samuels, 2019). To interact with Alexa, or other smart technologies, an individual must articulate a command in a way that is intelligible. The use of these devices may initially cause frustration for the individual, given the initial inability of the device(s) to decipher unique speech. However, one of the benefits of virtual assistants is the potential to help improve speech (Marston & Samuels, 2019). To avoid unnecessary frustration, one of the first things that should be demonstrated is how to turn off Alexa. “Alexa, stop.” “Alexa, pause.” “Alexa, off.” When a person’s speech is misunderstood, one of these simple phrases will stop the device from continuing its response. If an individual utilizes an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, these commands can be programmed and practiced (Williamson, 2019). Practicing communication interactions is the crucial first step for caregivers and teams to take when integrating smart technology within daily tasks.
Where to Go Next?
Have some fun! It is essential the user wants to engage with the smart technology, so they need to feel comfortable communicating with it! Xin and Leonard (2015) noted that using highly preferred activities can increase an individual’s communication skills and should be considered during practice. Start by asking the device for a joke, a new fact about a preferred topic or where the nearest amusement park is! Interacting with smart technology in a fun, engaging and non-pressuring way is an easy way to get the individual familiar with the device while practicing their communication skills.
Transitioning to Reminders/Routines
Using smart technology can support independence, while also providing safeguards for our older community, including those with disabilities. Pradhan et al. (2020) noted that voice assistants embodied in smart speakers enable voice-based interaction that does not necessarily rely on expertise with mobile or desktop computing. These platforms allow the opportunity for caregivers and families to effectively program devices for daily reminders and routines remotely. The consistent and intuitive interface design also allows access for individuals themselves to program and utilize the features of the smart devices.
Reminders can be quickly programmed into smart devices and even repeated. For example, you can say “Alexa set a daily reminder at 7 am to take medicine.” While utilizing smart technology, there is the potential to increase an individual’s independence. You remove the need for another person (whether a family member, caregiver, nurse’s aid, etc.) to need to be physically around to remind the person to take their meds. Instead, the individual can take their medication without additional support. Does the individual take PM medication as well? No problem, “Alexa set a daily reminder at 5 pm to take medicine.” Not a daily medication? “Alexa set a reminder every Wednesday at 2 pm to take medicine.” Setting reoccurring reminders is a practical and efficient way to support independence.
Reminders for upcoming events and important dates can also be helpful. For example, after a telehealth appointment, an individual can say: “Remind me on October 4th to go to the doctor’s office.” Furthermore, a caregiver may even set a reminder to go off at 2 pm saying, “Sarah is picking me up at 4 pm for doctor’s appointment.” Using smart technology for reminders can be extremely beneficial to all individuals, especially those with memory deficits. Pradhan et al. (2020) conducted a study that found individuals were reluctant to use reminders as they were concerned they would forget to set them. However, it was also noted that there was positive feedback regarding others (families, caregivers, and doctors) setting reminders to support memory.
What’s the First Step?
Taking the first step to integrate smart technology into the daily routine can be overwhelming, however, breaking the process down can be crucial to success. First, find a device that is affordable and compatible with current technology and install it. Accessing mainstream training materials and tech support can help familiarize everyone with the functions. Next, when beginning to integrate the tool within an individual’s day, start with low-risk, highly reinforcing commands. Incorporating this practice ensures future uses of the smart device won’t result in immediate frustration and resistance. So, let’s start with, “Alexa, improve independence with communication and routines today!”
Amanda Pfohl, MA, SYC, is a Special Education Teacher and Assistive Technology Specialist and Lauren Tucker, EdD, is Associate Professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University. For more information, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marston, H. R., & Samuels, J. (2019, March). A review of age friendly virtual assistive technologies and their effect on daily living for carers and dependent adults. In Healthcare (Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 49). MDPI.
Pradhan, A., Lazar, A., & Findlater, L. (2020). Use of intelligent voice assistants by older adults with low technology use. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 27(4), 1-27.
Williamson, F. (2019). ‘alexa, call my slp’: using smart tech to boost aac. The ASHA Leader, 24(5), 44-51. https://doi.org/10.1044/leader.ftr1.24052019.44
Xin, J. F., & Leonard, D. A. (2015). Using iPads to teach communication skills of students with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 45, 4154-4164.