Educators, clinicians, therapists and other professionals continue to look for new ways of using technology to benefit students with autism. Video modeling to teach social or self-regulation skills, individualized computer-assisted instruction, and augmentative communication devices are widely utilized interventions. School programs can be overwhelmed when considering technology options for students on the spectrum. Cost, accessibility, identifying and measuring student outcomes, teacher/therapist training, and adult and student “buy-in” are just a few of the areas to be considered.
Located in Staatsburg, New York, Anderson Center for Autism’s residential school serves students on the autism spectrum. As in any school setting, Anderson Center for Autism (ACA) administrators and staff are continually looking for ways to motivate students and positively impact learning outcomes. In recent years, a myriad of technology options have become available and their use with students on the spectrum has received a great deal of attention. Some schools quickly transitioned to using tablets such as iPads for all students with autism while others have chosen to utilize computer-assisted instruction for all or parts of the instructional day. ACA identified three areas important to our student population where various technology options could have positive outcomes. These areas included: communication training, group instruction and play skills.
IPads were identified quickly as a powerful tool for autism treatment and the broader speech pathology and special education fields. “Advances in technology afford new opportunities for both facilitating language learning and exploring additional dimensions of instruction” (Romski & Sevcik 1997). Many educational applications can easily be incorporated into the therapy setting and can be used to collect data, record conversational samples, motivate students, and improve receptive, expressive and pragmatic language skills in addition to being used as an augmentative assistive communication device.
At ACA, iPads are used by speech language pathologists within therapy sessions on a daily basis. They are used in a direct-teaching approach as well as in naturalistic settings to motivate students, and promote independence in language learning and communication. Using iPads, therapists are able to play videos and music, allow students to play popular games and search topics of interest without moving from the instructional site (desk/table), minimizing interruptions and providing immediate reinforcement. As time progressed, numerous applications for language development and topics were incorporated including cause and effect, literacy, written language, social stories and pragmatic language skill building. Children are taught prerequisite skills for communication (matching, motor imitation and verbal imitation) as well as turn-taking, appropriate play and social attention to partners, all using different applications geared toward students with autism. Therapists love the new tool and the students seem to thrive with the use of this technology.
However, the most talked about features of an iPad for a person with autism continue to be the ones that foster expressive communication. The iPad provides an affordable alternative to existing communication devices. Speech generating devices, which are systems used to supplement or replace verbal language for individuals that are nonverbal or minimally verbal, have long been successful in fostering communication in people without verbal language skills. Data from studies with adolescents with intellectual disabilities have also suggested that the use of speech generating device contributes to gains in receptive and expressive communication (Romski & Sevcik, 1997). Now, with the availability of applications or “apps” that imitate those expensive devices, the iPad offers a more accessible, less stigmatizing, cheaper and more user-friendly way to help children with autism to communicate. Although no empirical studies to date have been conducted regarding tablets with speech generating application and the enhancement of expressive language for children with autism, anecdotal data has been promising. With the availability of the iPad, therapists can assess every student on their caseload as a potential candidate for a speech generating device. This accessibility, along with the ease of evaluation has been significant for both therapists and students.
A combination of individual and group instruction is employed in most ACA classrooms. Group instruction has its challenges as maintaining student attention and keeping students actively engaged for the duration of lessons can be a tall order. Using an informal observation tool, school administrators compiled student engagement data in three classrooms. Students were considered “engaged in instruction” if at the end of a 5 second interval, they were looking at the instructionally appropriate place such as the teacher, correct materials or wall marker board. Overall, the data showed a low percentage of students consistently “engaged in instruction.” Increased engagement was noted when the teacher was speaking specifically to a student or prompting their attention in some way. The same observation tool was utilized after interactive “white boards” were installed in the same three classrooms. The data showed an overall increase in individual student engagement as well an increase in student sustained engagement (absence of prompting from teacher). Over time, all (23) classrooms had interactive white boards installed. Feedback from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. They report the ability to create richer lesson plans that incorporate highly motivating visual and auditory components. Often, students who had difficulty with computer or mouse manipulation on a PC, demonstrate adeptness with the interactive “pen” used with the whiteboard. Some teachers noted that students who had difficulty tracking images or words presented on a PC monitor are able to easily do so via the whiteboard. It’s important to ensure that the white board is not the only instructional tool used in a lesson, especially for students with significant learning challenges. Overall, white board technology has provided teachers with countless options for creating highly engaging lessons.
The National Autism Center’s National Standards Report has cited exercise as an emerging treatment with promising potential for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is well-established that exercise has benefits beyond just an increase in physical activity. Exercise targets various aspects of brain functioning and has broad effects on overall mental health; it has been shown to reduce stress, depressive symptoms, and anxiety. Exercise also provides a boost in learning and memory, as well as increases in immunity and metabolism. Despite the plethora of benefits that physical activity offers it is sometimes difficult to encourage interest in exercise among individuals with ASD, as conventional physical activities are often unappealing.
“Exergaming,” a term used for video games that serve as a form of exercise, may help increase physical activity levels in users. These types of gaming devices rely on technology in conjunction with the user’s body movements in order to operate. Some popular devices that use this type of interaction have been shown as more physically demanding than conventional sedentary game consoles. While there are inconsistencies in current research regarding how much energy is expended during use of these devices, any amount of physical activity is a step toward a more healthful lifestyle and may act as an appropriate starting point for otherwise sedentary individuals.
The EyePlay is an interactive gaming device offered by EyeClick Ltd. that engages users in a fun, exciting, and innovative way. This highly-advanced video game platform with motion-activated games can be played with users’ entire bodies, allowing multiple users to run, jump, twist, and dance using hands and feet to set in motion sounds and colorful graphics. During a two month period, ACA trialed the EyePlay to determine whether students could effectively use the device, and if it could function as an additional tool to increase physical activity. In surveys, staff who worked with students involved in the trial reported that the device was easy to use and accessible to a wide range of students. Initial observations showed that a majority of the students who used the device enjoyed the games and effects, and had fun interacting with the device and with their peers. The EyePlay appeared to be a preferred activity to several students who were able to remain engaged with the device for several minutes. Overall, staff felt the device showed potential for staff-assisted engagement for children with ASD. We look forward to incorporating the potential this device offers into other realms of our students’ daily routine.
Amanda Coons, MS, BCBA, is a Behavior Analyst, Rebecca Stanmyer, BS, CCC-SLP, is a Speech Language Pathologist, and Kathleen Marshall, BA, MA, SAS, is Director of Children’s Services at the Anderson Center for Autism. For more information, please contact (845) 889-9534 or www.andersoncenterforautism.org.
Romski MA, Sevcik RA. (1997) Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Children with Disabilities. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research reviews3:363-368