Using technology – such as computers, games and other devices – is a popular leisure time activity for autistic people. Here we provide practical guidance to parents of autistic children to help them get the most benefit from technology and avoid associated problems. The guidance is based on new research evidence from The University of Edinburgh.
Why use technology?
When using technology, children on the autism spectrum:
- can learn new skills
- are often more motivated
- often show better concentration
- often initiate more contact with those around them, eg talking to their peers or showing teachers and parents what they have done
- can be an expert, make choices and direct their own learning and play
- might find ways to regulate their well-being – watching the same YouTube clip over and over might seem pointless, but it might be helping your child to manage their anxiety or just relax.
Technology gives you a way to carry a lot of fun, educational and useful content on one portable device.
If you struggle to get your child to sit with you and read a story, they might do so when that story is presented on a tablet, and has interactive features. You can enter into their world by engaging with their love of computers (or sharing yours). This can provide a shared experience and strengthened relationship.
If your child uses a visual timetable, picture communication system, or social stories, you can now have all the stories and symbols you use on one device. Apps (an app is a piece of software that you can download to your device) can help you easily create new symbols, schedules and stories. Using a tablet to communicate is more socially acceptable than carrying a large folder of Velcroed, laminated symbols.
There are now dozens of tablet apps available which aim to provide a digital voice for those who do not speak. Most of these follow a similar format: symbols represent words, these are selected to construct a sentence and then the app plays the appropriate sentence aloud.
There is still very limited evidence for how these audio-output apps affect the language development of autistic children. We suggest parents should be cautious when choosing communication apps for their child. A picture communication app which has symbols which must be shown to a communication partner, rather than audio output, might be more appropriate, especially for young children who are learning to speak. On the other hand, if you have a child who is an adult and has a limited, or no vocabulary, an audio-output app might transform your life, and theirs.
At all times, bear in mind that if your child becomes reliant on a particular app to communicate it will be impossible to remove it from them. CALL Scotland has provided a categorised guide to iPad communication apps that they have found to be reliable and relatively straightforward to use.
Crucially, if considering this route, we suggest you discuss it carefully with your child’s teacher, speech and language therapist, paediatrician or other professionals first.
Using technology is not the antisocial activity that some claim.
Your child can be connected to online communities through their love of video games, and their skills and knowledge can give them something to talk about in the playground. There are increasing numbers of social technologies, such as tablet-based group games for young children and social networks like Facebook for teenagers and adults.
Parents can help their children overcome social isolation by teaching them the skills they need to use these online communities safely. Building this confidence may help your teenager as they transition to adulthood and give them the capacity for an independent online life, to support their growing independence in other domains too.
Technology doesn’t mean sitting alone in a darkened room any more, and the line between technology and ‘real life’ is disappearing.
The limitations of technology
- Technology is not great for developing generalised skills.
- An autistic child might be good at spelling in an app but not with pen and paper.
- Children using technology can direct their own learning, but they might not always direct it where you would like.
- Repetitive playing of the same game will give you some peace and quiet and provide valuable downtime for your child, but it probably isn’t contributing to their learning.
For this reason, technology should always be used as just one in a range of approaches to contribute to your child’s well-being, learning and development.
Starting out with technology
If your child isn’t yet familiar with technology, you could try borrowing a tablet or smartphone from a friend or from your child’s school to see how they respond. CALL Scotland will lend equipment to people in Scotland.
If you’re worried about your child getting obsessed with technology or damaging something expensive, then do this in a managed way. For example, if you try something new at a friend’s house, this will make it less likely that your child will then expect to be able to use the same device at home.
There are many different options available and what you choose will depend on your budget, your child’s abilities and what you want the technology to do. Once your child has got used to a particular kind of device, they may struggle to change. Here are some things to consider.
- Interface. If your child is young or has a learning delay then a touchscreen interface will be the easiest for them to use.
- What you need it for. Do you want to be able to engage your child while you’re out and about? If so, a small tablet or smartphone - portable and light - will be good. Do you want to limit technology use to the home? If so, you could go for a desktop computer, laptop or touchscreen computer. If you want to encourage your child to be more active, then a Wii or Kinect might be right.
- Hardware features. Does the device you’re considering have accessibility features, or parental controls? Most tablets and smartphones don’t currently allow multiple user accounts so they are hard to share between different family members.
- Software. Is the software you want available on the hardware you’re considering? Android tablets are cheaper than the iPad, but there are more apps available for iPad.
- Accessories. What accessories are available for the device? A hard case might be important. A tablet might be easier to throw around than a laptop, but it is also easier to protect with a special case, and cheaper to replace.
- Buying second hand. If you can’t afford the device you want, you could buy it second hand from websites such as Preloved or eBay. Apple sells refurbished devices. Check the original release date of the model you want to buy - the more recent it is, the longer your device will work as operating systems are upgraded. For instance, the first iPad no longer runs the most recent operating system. And of course, make sure the retailer you buy from has positive endorsements from previous customers. Can they offer you a guarantee? Will they provide support if your device breaks or needs upgrading?
You will want to choose software based on your child’s current needs, interests and abilities. We suggest that you:
- try it out. If it is a free app, try it out yourself first so that you can check that it is well-designed and does what you want it to do. If you don’t do this, your child may become fixated on an app that doesn’t meet their needs.
- read reviews. If the software your are considering costs a bit more, check out the online reviews or ask around to see if anyone else has tried it first. Has it won any awards?
- find out more. Look at who designed the software. Did they consult with parents or teachers? Did they trial the app with people with autism? Or with children of the right age? Is there any evidence to support the software? This is very rare but if the developers are making big claims about what the app can do then they ought to be able to support these with proper, independent, research evidence.
- consider non-autism-specific software. Sometimes, autism-specific software will have features which make them particularly suitable for your child, eg they might target social skills. But if you want your child to learn to recognise colours, match shapes, read or write, or if you want games which will give them some downtime, and a chance to have fun independently, then you might find an app to meet that need that isn’t autism-specific.
Managing screen time
Some professionals recommend limiting screen time, especially for younger children. Some parents feel social pressure to limit their child’s use of technology. However, there is no good quality evidence that screen time negatively affects educational attainment or behaviour.
Nonetheless, children should be encouraged to experience variety. Obsessive behaviours can restrict family life, and cause additional tension. For this reason, technology use should be carefully managed, ideally from the outset.
Bear in mind that if your child is doing lots of different things with their device, it might be ok to allow a longer period of time than if they spend the whole time on one repetitive activity.
Here are some suggestions.
- Use your child’s routine to make technology available in specific contexts or at specific times of day. Do this at the point of introducing a new piece of technology. Try not to let your child keep technology in their room as it may disrupt sleep.
- Use the battery life as a way to manage technology use. Lots of parents reported to us that their children understood the idea of a battery running out and needing to be re-charged. Children can handle this better than someone taking away their device after a fixed period of time.
- Use an online timer or app to help you keep a track of how long your child spends on a device. Some timers will automatically shut down the device after a period of time.
- Use different coloured cases on your tablet or smartphone, each colour signalling to your child when they are allowed to just play, and when they are ‘working’ or doing activities with you.
- Play with your child – enter their world by having a go at the games they’re interested in. Be available to them while they play so they can show you what they can do. Don’t belittle your child’s video game achievements because you think they’re “just games” - these require concentration, dedication and skill to achieve.
We are grateful to Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson at The University of Edinburgh on whose work this guidance was based. More resources including a detailed guidance document can be found at her website, DART (development / autism / research / technology).