Rapid advances in technology over the past decade have led to an overwhelming number of products put on the market to treat Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The sheer number of products (from computer games to apps to robots!) can be intimidating. Moreover, many product lines make enticing claims about what their new technology can do. Technology presents exciting possibilities, because many individuals with ASD have an intrinsic interest in or aptitude for technology. Unfortunately, empirical studies of what works, what doesn’t, and how new technology should be implemented have not kept pace with the technological advances. What should we consider when determining which technology is appropriate for our child, our client, or our student? Here I discuss three important factors, discussed in order: 1) finding an interest, 2) considering the approach, and 3) selecting the appropriate technology.
Find an Interest
I often hear “Individuals with ASD love technology” or “Individuals with ASD love robots.” As a researcher, I can say that both of these statements are false. It is a mistake to assume that just because an individual has ASD that he or she will like a certain type of technology. The most consistent finding in research on the use of technology with individuals with ASD is that there is considerable individual variation, both in terms of interest in the technology and in terms of response in therapy. It is important to pay attention to the individual. As a parent, educator, or therapist, you are looking for windows of engagement that provide an opportunity for social interaction. It is possible that a certain type of technology might provide that window, but only if the child shows an interest in that particular app, game, or tool. If you are unsure about whether or not a particular child might have an interest in a type of technology, try to find opportunities to “pilot” the technology before purchasing.
Consider the Approach
Before implementing an approach that uses technology with an individual with ASD, we must ask what the purpose of the technology will be. I often have seen the purchase of a program/app/device precede the development of a purpose for its use. To use an analogy, a 10 foot tall refrigerator might look great in the store, but if you can’t even fit it in your house, why would you purchase it? There are many potential uses for technology, and some choices are simple. Is the purpose to provide an augmentative communication device? Is the purpose to provide the child with an escape that involves educational games in lieu of first-person shooter games? These are straightforward applications that have many viable options. However, many products are advertised as having the ability to treat ASD, and this is a much harder claim to prove.
We must understand that technology, in and of itself, does not treat ASD, regardless of how interesting the child might find it. In fact, if used incorrectly, it could be detrimental to the social development of individuals with ASD. Individuals with ASD, by definition, have difficulties with social interaction, although these difficulties can vary greatly from individual to individual. Giving a child a tablet computer does not teach a child to be social, even if the applications/games are purported to do so. In many cases, a tablet computer or a game can become a way to escape from social interactions, or a barrier from entering into social interactions. Therefore, we must be strategic in how we use technology if the goal is to improve social interaction.
There are common sense strategies for using technology to increase social skills. First, if the goal is to increase social skills with technology, then it should be used in a social manner. For example, if an individual with ASD is learning skills while interacting with a type of technology, they should then get the opportunity to practice these skills with a human partner. Alternately, technology could be used in conjunction with another person (e.g., a game in two player mode) to elicit person-to-person interactions. Either way, the important component is to use the technology in a social way.
Another approach is to use an interest in a specific type of technology as a way to find “shared interests” with others and use the shared interest as a way to engage in reciprocal communication. If a child has an intrinsic interest in a game, an app, or another type of technology (even if it wasn’t made for individuals with ASD), use it as a springboard for conversation with others who might also have an interest in the technology. The first step toward “reciprocal” social interaction is finding a shared interest, and technology might be a good window of opportunity. Recently, our research team at Notre Dame has been developing a summer science camp for high schoolers (both with and without ASD) who have an interest in robotics. They get to learn how to program advanced robots, but the challenge is that they must work in teams. We believe that a shared intrinsic interest in a topic is essential when it comes to social communication, and if we provide opportunities for individuals with ASD to engage in conversation over a shared interest, social performance will improve.
Once you have found an intrinsic interest, and you have a therapeutic or educational approach in mind, the next step is to evaluate the available technology. Many products make claims, and there are a few tricks to help you separate marketing ploys from science. First, search for information on a product on sites that are not trying to sell you something. For example, a search on “Google Scholar” (scholar.google.com) will give you recent studies on a particular type of technology, and possibly even a specific brand in which you might be interested. Be wary of sites that are giving you “research” information about a product, and also trying to sell you the very same product. It is important to go to a neutral source to if you want to get neutral information about a product. When you look at research on a particular type of technology, make sure to check who paid for the research. For example, a study of an iPad application could be funded by the company who made the application. Neutral sources of funding, such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or the Autism Science Foundation are good examples of reputable funding sources.
In sum, with numerous products on the market for use with individuals with ASD, it is important to take a planful approach when considering the appropriateness of these products for a particular individual. If a child shows an interest in a type of technology, it is important to examine whether it will create or inhibit social opportunities. Moreover, it is essential to become adept at distinguishing between good science and marketing ploys.
Joshua John Diehl, PhD, is the William J. Shaw Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact Dr. Diehl at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-631-5729, or visit our website at www.funlab.nd.edu. You can also follow us on Twitter at @ND_FUN_Lab or #funlab.