Technology: The Silver Bullet in Education for Individuals with Autism

The advent of the iPad and iPhone and a host of other hand-held devices have transformed the way the world gathers, manages and organizes information. One device now encompasses just about everything we need to efficiently execute our lives on professional and personal levels. The same advantages and applications of these devices that we enjoy as typically developing individuals apply to individuals with developmental disabilities including individuals on the autism spectrum. The access to information, music, video and a variety of applications that assist with communication and executive function are both important supports and key reinforcers to individuals with autism and function to enhance quality of life on almost every level. Parents and clinicians regularly report that children with autism are drawn to technological devices and researchers have noted the importance of devising treatments that take advantage of this fascination (Colby, 1973).

Technology today holds great promise for helping students with disabilities learn, communicate, and function effectively in the modern world. Historically, the use of technology was limited to devices specially devised for special education purposes exclusively. These assistive technology1 devices are expensive, complicated to use (in terms of requiring sophisticated training in order to operate them) and are most often bulky and stigmatizing. Today, readily available technology is transforming the way we approach education.2 These “retail” devices are easy to use, universally understood, portable and typical in society. These advances in technology are reinventing typical uses of devices creating new “adaptive” uses that are decreasing stigma and increasing generalized use of technology across environments. Portable devices, such as iPads, iPods, iPhones, or PDAs have the potential of taking teachers out of the equation3 in the instructional interaction and providing widespread opportunity for community immersion and acceptance. Additionally, new research examines how mobile applications such as Smartphones, Skype and Texting Technologies can increase student engagement and retention and increase learner engagement in an epoch of increasing globalization and diversity. Furthermore, increasingly available technology provides more opportunities for electronic data collection with real-time data graphing, analysis, and archiving. These enabling technologies4 are reshaping and reframing the practice of teaching and learning in education.

But remember, when addressing technological applications in education, it is important to understand exactly what the use of the word “technology” is referring to:


Tech⋅nol⋅o⋅gy [tek-nol-uh-jee] noun


The branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science. (emphasis added)

The terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature.

A technological process, invention, method. (emphasis added) (Merriam-Webster, 1994)

Technology does not, therefore, refer exclusively to devices (iPads, etc.) even though it is these devices that most immediately come to mind today when using the term technology. Technology equally refers to the process and framework5 within which the devices need to be used – one such important technology is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Behavior analysis is a field of inquiry dedicated to investigating and modifying behavior in a systematic way. ABA is: Data-based, Analytical, Able to be replicated, Socially important, Contextual, and Accountable (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2012). In combination, we use these technologies to allow us to improvise, adapt and overcome any challenge the environment or function presents as a barrier to improving ability.

Not only is technology innovative and additional research into the use of technology to teach is occurring at a rapid rate (necessary, because much clinical use of technology remains unsupported as evidenced-based practices), but the students and their needs are continuously evolving. These needs must be constantly evaluated.6 Vocabulary must be kept functional and current and reflect the relevant environments, age appropriate terminology in order to increase the child’s capability for communication need to be considered and, most importantly, behavioral technologies such as data collection to ensure that the use of the technological devices contribute to appropriate progress toward goals must always be used in conjunction with any hardware and software. The handheld devices or applications that run them alone are not the silver bullet to educational innovation some may think. So remember, a comprehensive approach utilizing all available technology is the proper path to integrating technology into your intervention strategies.


Thomas L. Zane, PhD, BCBA-D, is Clinical Director and Gloria M. Satriale, Esq, BCAB, is Executive Director at Preparing Adolescents and Adults for Life (PAAL). For more information, visit or contact Dr. Zane at


  1. Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capacities of a child with a disability (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004)
  2. Individuals with autism often need external stimulus prompts to initiate or maintain behavior (McDuff, Krantz, & McClannahan, 2001). Technological advancements in the last decade have created cost effective automated prompting devices with the ability to deliver the same levels of prompting with less human interaction and obtrusiveness and often less human effort in managing prompt delivery (e.g. Tabor, Seltzer, Heftlin, & Alberto, 1999).
  3. An influx of epic proportions is expected with the numbers of children identified with ASD entering the adult system within the next 10-15 years (Advancing Futures with Autism, 2015) at a cost of $137 billion per year (Cidav, Marcus, & Mandell, 2013) in an environment where there are fewer and fewer services available for adults and less and less professional support for the development of instructional plans (Gerhart & Lainer, 2011) elevating the need to use technology to ease this burden to the highest priority.
  4. The IDEA requires an IEP team to consider the need for the use of (assistive) technology and while IDEA does not specifically define what “consideration” by the IEP team means, the case law generally regards “consideration” to mean “careful and deliberate thought” and the generally accepted practice suggests that the IEP team needs information about:

The student, environment, including general education curriculum access needs

IEP goals, benchmarks, objectives

The full range of Assistive Technology possibilities

There are established tools to assist in the “consideration” process such as the SETT Framework, found at Districts have been required to pay for typical devices (iPad, etc.), software and data plans and the use of this technology can appear in the SDI section of the IEP as well as have individually stated and measurable goals. Independent evaluation rules apply to decisions regarding technology. Don’t forget to include within the IEP the requirement for training or additional supports and services for school district personnel to become fluent in the use of this technology and to provide that the technology will follow the student across environments including home and community. Regarding repairs, according to an OSEP Policy Letter (1994), a school has only two options: repair the family’s device, or purchase its “own,” in order to assure access to working equipment as per the IEP.

  1. For example, the application of stimulus control is technology to a behavioral clinician.
  2. Assessment Considerations for the Use of Technology in Education:

Level of Development: At what level is the student’s fine motor skills (for assessment of the ability to navigate hardware devices: buttons; swipe screens); Tracking skills; problem solving skills; ability to chain tasks.

Level of Communication: What is the student’s current primary modality of communication; can the methodology be effectively digitized (most often can); will the device be necessary for voice output (is the volume sufficient)?

Environmental Factors: Will the device be used across environments (it should). What are the considerations for security (insurance, tracking ability – for student and device); Considerations for stigma (use of earbuds vs. bulky headphones).

Cost: Is Wi-Fi sufficient or is a data plan required? Is a phone necessary or can an iPad meet needs? Is a computer or tablet with the capability to make calls and texts a better solution?

Remember, device and software trials can be an empirical way to determine appropriate technology. Adapted from Dell, Newton, & Petroff (2008).


Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (2010). Retrieved January 22, 2013 at

Cidav, Z., Marcus, S. C., & Mandell, D. S. (2013). Age-related variation in health service use and associated expenditures among children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder. 43(4), 924-931

Colby, K. M. (1973). The rationale for computer-based treatment of language difficulties in nonspeaking autistic children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 3(3), 254-260.

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Second edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Dell, A., Newton, D., & Petroff, J. (2008). Assistive technology in the classroom. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Gerhart, P. F., & Lainer, I. (2011). Addressing the needs of adolescents and adults with autism: A crisis on the horizon. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 41, 37-45.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004.

McDuff, G. S., Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (2001). Prompts and prompt-fading strategies for people with autism. In C. Maurice, G. Green, & R. M. Foxx (Eds.), Making a difference: Behavioral Interventions for autism (pp. 37-50). Austin, TX: Pro-ed.

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 1994, p.1210.

Office of Special Education & Rehabilitative Services (1994). Retrieved December 10, 2015 at:

Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2012). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Second edition. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing Co.

Taber, T.A., Seltzer, A., Heflin, L.J., & Alberto, P.A. (1999). Use of self-operated auditory prompts to decrease off-task behavior for a student with autism and moderate mental retardation. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 14, 159—166.

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