As parents watch today’s children play mindless and solitary video games for hours at a time, they may worry that digital devices are luring children away from social interactions with real life peers. This concern is more intense for parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as there appears to be a profound mismatch between their child’s (often obsessive) desires to engage in technology and the child’s need to socially engage with other human beings in order to overcome challenges in social skills.
As a parent of two children on the autism spectrum, I often find myself in the unsavory position of having to wrestle a laptop away from my video-game-drunk child or threaten to delete an iPad app if he does not behave. Sometimes I feel as though I am losing the battle against technology in a competition for my child’s attention and affection.
Despite these potential drawbacks, technology is not an evil force from which we should try to shield our children. Technology is only a tool. As such, its utility or harm is determined by how we wield it. Today’s technology potentially presents an exciting new world of learning opportunities that did not exist a decade or two ago. However, we need to strategically ensure that it is used for the benefit, and not detriment, of our children’s development. Moreover, it is of utmost importance that these novel learning opportunities are appropriately evaluated for their effectiveness.
Commonly Employed Use of Technology in School, Home, and Therapy Settings
There are at least two ways in which computer and digital devices are incorporated into therapeutic interventions for children with ASD. First, electronic devices and tablets can be used as an alternative/augmentative communication device. Second, a favorite electronic game or devices is frequently used as a reward for cooperating in behavioral programs. Electronic devices are commonly used with children with ASD in the home, school, and therapeutic setting to encourage or facilitate targeted behaviors.
For example, Kyle, a 10-year-old boy with ASD, got into trouble at school on a daily basis for inappropriately screaming or hitting others when he was frustrated. One goal for his parents and teachers was to teach Kyle effective ways to appropriately express himself when frustrated. At school, his resource teacher implemented the following behavior program: when faced with a situation that Kyle could not handle in the classroom, he was taught to calmly state, “I’m frustrated because ____. Can you help me?” rather than becoming loud, destructive, or violent. Due to Kyle’s limited expressive language skills, he relied on an iPad app to serve as his augmentative communication device. He would tap his finger on pictures that would produce preset vocalizations. According to his behavioral program, if he was successful in expressing his frustration without the use of undesirable behaviors, he was rewarded with three minutes to play his favorite iPad game.
Finding a New Way to Take
Advantage of Technology for the
Benefit of the Individual with ASD
In addition to it being used as an alternative/augmentative communication device or as a reward for a desired behavior, technology is emerging as a means to enhance natural social interaction among children with ASD and their peers. Research repeatedly has demonstrated that a cognitive understanding of social skills is useless without opportunities to practice them outside of the clinical setting and in more naturalistic settings with age peers. Given that social demands become increasingly complex with age, and adolescents with ASD are vulnerable to developing social anxiety as they become painfully aware of their own social limitations, it is imperative that we develop targeted interventions to improve social and vocational development in adolescents with ASD.
Since many children with ASD already are attracted to technology, it can be used as a motivator to draw children into natural social interactions. One such effort is ongoing at the University of Notre Dame’s F.U.N. Lab (Laboratory For Understanding Neurodevelopment). My colleagues and I at the F.U.N. Lab have developed an evidence-based summer camp for adolescents with ASD. Children who express an interest in technology are invited to participate. We try to keep the composition of the group to roughly 50% ASD and 50% typically developing children. The participants are first taught basic technical skills necessary to program a robot or develop a computer game. Then they are given collaborative group projects in which they have to share robots and computers, negotiate group project ideas, resolve any conflicts, make small talk during breaks, and present their final projects together on the last day of camp to an audience of family and friends.
All these skills are taught directly and indirectly while children are having fun together in a supportive and nonjudgmental environment. We find that regardless of their pre-existing technical or communication skills, children of all abilities are motivated by their shared interest in technology to engage in reciprocal social conversations. Because they are doing something they enjoy and at which they feel proficient, their motivation to learn is high, pressure to engage in contrived social interactions is low, and their confidence grows.
This approach is different from other more traditional peer-mediated interventions where typically developing children are given special training to work with children with ASD. Of course peer-mediated interventions can be highly effective at including children with autism who would otherwise not be able to engage with their peers. They also have the benefit of bringing much needed awareness and acceptance of autism into inclusive classrooms. However, for high-functioning adolescents, such contrived situations may not be appropriate due to the unavoidable imbalance of power and the lack of motivation to engage in reciprocal conversations. An adolescent with ASD once told me that he feels uncomfortable, and even ridiculous, participating in these relationships set up by his well-meaning teachers. He explained, “These kids don’t even like me. They’re just being nice to me because they think I’m ‘special needs.’ They treat me like a baby.” On the other hand, when he participates in our summer camps, his proclivity and aptitude for computers seems to level the playing field. He feels he is just one of them, a rare experience indeed for a child who always feels he is different.
Our preliminary research results show that adolescents with ASD who participate in these summer camps exhibit significant increase in social skills and vocational skills, and decrease in social anxiety (Kaboski et al., 2014). In addition to scientific evidence of effectiveness, anecdotal success stories shared by participants and their parents offer much encouragement. One mother sent an email message about her son’s involvement in the Computer Game Design Camp: “My heart is absolutely soaring for Nate*! He has come home both days so excited. Although the details are few, which is normal for him, his first words to me (both days) have been: ‘I’m so excited. I love it. Finally, something that I understand and don’t feel stupid doing. And, I am meeting new friends.’” (*Pseudonym used to protect privacy.)
Increasing Interest in Utilizing Technology in Social Skills Intervention
There are a number of other notable recent efforts to use technology for the purpose of increasing social skills. For example, Dr. Christina Noel at the School of Teacher Education, developed the Minecraft Club for individuals with ASD and neurotypical peers who share the common specialized interest in the video game, Minecraft. The club allows adolescents to work on the virtual Minecraft “worlds” they jointly created while simultaneously learning and practicing how to interact and work with others. Another example is the Secret Agent Society (SAS) developed by Dr. Renae Beaumont at the University of Queensland (Beumont, 2008). SAS is an interactive spy game where children with ASD learn about relationships and emotions. SAS offers small group sessions for children to discuss the social skills learned in the game and also sessions for parents to support their child’s burgeoning social skills development.
I hope to see more such interventions that capitalize on children’s shared interest in technology to increase social skills. At the same time, more research to scientifically validate the effectiveness of such programs is needed.
As I type this, I glance at the Christmas presents wrapped under the tree. One of the gifts is for Andy, my 8th grader with ASD. He wants to be a computer programmer or video game developer when he grows up. For Christmas, I bought him a Raspberry Pi starter kit and a programming book for children called Adventures in Minecraft. I am giving him something that I know he will enjoy. But more importantly, I am giving him an opportunity to naturally venture into conversations about these things with his cousins and neighborhood children who will find his new toy “cool” and will want to talk about their common interest in technology. Instead of fretting that he is playing too many video games by himself, I will be able to sit back and watch him develop his own video games – with other children.
Juhi Kaboski, PhD, is a Research Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the F.U.N. Lab (Laboratory For Understanding Neurodevelopment) at the University of Notre Dame. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Dr. Kaboski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-631-2814. To learn more about her research, please visit www.funlab.nd.edu.
Beaumont, R., & Sofronoff, K. (2008). A multi-component social skills intervention for children with Asperger Syndrome: The Junior Detective Training Program. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 743-753.
Kaboski, J., Diehl, J.J., Beriont, J., Crowell, C., Villano, M., Wier, K., & Tang, K. (2015). Brief Report: A Pilot Summer Robotics Camp to Reduce Social Anxiety and Improve Social/Vocational Skills in Adolescents with ASD, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(12), 3862-3869. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2153-3.