Long Island Behavior Analysis Conference

One Father’s Experience Developing Apps to Motivate Son with Autism to Learn

Much has been said over the years concerning technology and education; there has been and still is an ongoing debate about how we can best implement technology into schools to the benefit of children. Our adult life on a day-to-day basis is filled with technology, from touch screens for ordering plane tickets to self-checkout at the grocery store, so it is pertinent that our children are well-versed with using technology. The popularity of tablets and smart phones has made its way into the education world in the form of educational software and apps. Even textbooks are becoming digital – replacing paperbacks and hard copies. There are a plethora of apps on the market for Android phones, iPhones and even Windows phones. In fact, Google has created and entire section of their app store, called Google Play for Education, that is dedicated to advancing technology in education. As the parent of an autistic son, I’ve spent lots of time finding ways to make educating my son easier on a daily basis; I’ve used everything from pictures to PECs, flashcards, boards and more. Currently there are many studies and a major debate surrounding the issue of implementing tablets, smart phones and other technologies into the school curriculum across the US and other countries. Many believe that access to technology increases access to information. However, many also believe that these devices will act as a distraction from a traditional education. The debate differs as countries in the developing world adapt and adopt these technologies, while many undeveloped countries fall behind. It is currently estimated that in the UK 70% of schools have implemented tablets into their education. Meanwhile in the US, only about 1/3 of schools had done so as of the end of 2014. When focusing on children with autism, the numbers of kids using technology in the classroom decreases, but this of course depends on the type of technology being used. It is most common to see autistic children using primarily “low-tech” devices at school, and a mixture of low- and “mid-tech” at home, due to more devices being available (Coughlan, 2014).

The Impact of Technology on the Autistic Brain

Devices such as tablets and apps have had an interesting impact on children with autism. This impact overall has been positive for reasons that aren’t as simple and standard as many would expect. Communication skills has been one of the main challenges among children and adults with autism. Children that don’t have the ability to communicate wants and needs often lash out through tantrums, meltdowns or destructive behavior. This behavior is often a result of the frustration from not being able to have your needs or wants met, due to inability to communicate with others. This is often more enhanced among non-verbal children with autism. Often times, improvements in communication result in parents reporting a decrease in the severity of tantrums and meltdowns and a reduction in the frequency of this type of behavior (Heasley, 2013). When we give the children a device or tool that is more visual than verbal and assist them in communications, we discover more cooperation, patience and more input from the children. It has been discovered that many children with autism are more visual than verbal. This is not out of the norm, because when children are born, during their formative years they learn and take information in a more visual manner. This is normal activity when it comes to processing sensory information, which is typically initiated in the DLPFC (Dorsal Lateral Pre-frontal Cortex). The brain has sensors that intake the information, judge the information, then begin to interpret the data and make a decision. Most of this is perceptual, as children and adults make decisions, learn and act based on what they perceive. The brain is typically great at deciphering information, separating the noisy information from the pertinent (Carey, n.d.).

Why This Matters to an Autism Father and Software Developer

The autistic brain is different than that of a neurotypical individual in unique ways. When using mobile apps and games, children with are able to visually see the actions, communications and messages and also create their own messages to send to others. We are using technology more and more (mainly mobile apps) to add new information into our memory – memory is one of the most important functions of the brain especially when it comes to learning.

Studies have shown that in the “normal” brain, there are differences in gene expression in the temporal lobe and frontal lobe, while in the autistic brain there is very little difference between the two. This in particular affects the synaptic function, which directly relates to how neurons in the brains share information. As a software developer and a father of a son with autism, I take into account how my son will process information while learning and what will motivate, inspire and leave a lasting memory. While taking this into account as a developer, I build and develop apps based on his individual education plan (IEP). This enables me to measure his improvements year to year to determine how well integrating technology and mobile apps are helping him improve in communications, language, following directions and social skills. What I have discovered is that integrating or “gamifying” his education has increased his motivation and his ability to retain the information, steps and processes. This same effect is true for the large percentage of those who learn through gaming; this is also why early education heavily involves songs and games to teach simple language and number skills. Even the adult workplace is increasingly implementing competition and gaming to motivate its workers (McGonigal, 2011). Children with autism that become accustomed to using technology early will be able to order food, purchase plane tickets, communicate, connect socially and use grocery self-checkout lines among other skills, which will give them more independence and experiences that can improve their life and livelihood as adults. All of us are becoming more and more visual in processing information, so why not take advantage of these technologies in order to teach and improve the lives of children with autism (Seth, 2014).

 

Andre Spivey is the founder and CEO of Live 2 Learn Differently, Inc. He comes with a wealth and diversity of IT experience spending over 8 years in the US Air Force. During my time in the Air Force, my son was diagnosed with autism. As he began school I became inspired to find a way that I could use my experience to help him learn. We built the start-up Live 2 Learn Differently to have a huge impact on the technology used to teach children with autism and other special needs. Through this he developed the mobile apps “HearMePlease” and “GoToZoo” and many more these educational apps for children with autism. Some of these apps used currently by schools in the United States and South Africa. Andre, has a B.A. in Organizational Management and Leadership Skills from Morris Brown College, and Graduate Certificates in Financial Management, Business Leadership Skills and Executive Leadership Skills from Cornell University. He is also Business Communications major at Harvard Extension School.  For more information, please email live2learndifferently@gmail.com.

References

Carey, B. (n.d.). How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where and why it happens (Random House trade paperback ed.).

Coughlan, S. (2014, December 3). Tablet computers in ‘70% of schools’ – BBC News. www.bbc.com/news/education-30216408

Heasley, S. (2013, January 23). Families Deeply Impacted By Autism Aggression, Study Finds – Disability Scoop. https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2013/01/23/families-autism-aggression/17157/

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.

Seth, A. (2014). 30-second brain: The 50 most mind-blowing ideas in neuroscience, each explained in half a minute. Sydney: Pier9.

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