The challenges associated with autism are costly to the affected individuals, their families, and society. Individuals with autism face difficulties in communication and socialization, as well as increased risk of behavior problems that can severely impact their ability to participate in everyday activities. Children with autism grow into adults with autism, and current statistics are showing that the majority of these adults do not keep up with their peers by attending college or getting competitive employment after high school (Taylor & Seltzer, 2011).
The tragedy is that many of these students are capable and could live and succeed independently given the proper supports and tools.
Until recently, such support has generally consisted of individualized programming, one-to-one intervention, and ongoing interaction with teachers, coaches, and therapists. This high-intensity programming is costly and not always within reach for individuals and school districts charged with providing an adequate education. Furthermore, school district support ends at age 21, turning young adults over to systems typically set up for maintenance and safety, not growth and achievement.
Technology as an Educational Tool for Students with Autism
We are starting to see an impact of the technology revolution on our ability to support students with autism and other disabilities, however. The availability of handheld devices that are intuitive and easy to use, such as tablets, has opened doors for children and adults in so many ways. Perhaps most crucial is the use of these devices as a means of communication. Augmentative and alternative communication is nothing new for people with disabilities, but today’s tablets and smartphones provide access to communication apps and programs that are more affordable and easier to use than older devices.
Modern technology is also incredibly engaging for students with disabilities. Access to the Internet, videos, music, interactive games, and digital learning platforms can be highly motivating to children and adults on the autism spectrum. Research strongly supports the use of video models for teaching a variety of skills to students with autism. Many of these individuals find that socialization is easier and more pleasant when conducted online, via text, or even simply around the presence of technology. The child with an autism spectrum disorder who dislikes sports or finds verbal exchanges difficult will happily join other kids in a video game or SMART Board activity at school. Teens who want to have friends but feel uncomfortable negotiating phone calls or school clubs can ease themselves into such experiences with texting and Facebook interaction.
Teachers and parents find that technology can be useful and practical in helping their students and children in other ways, as well. Apps for data collection allow for ongoing analysis of behavior in a way previously impossible. Companies, like Rethink Autism, make training and support materials available in geographic areas that lack trained professionals. The Sage Colleges’ highly regarded master’s and certificate in applied behavior analysis and autism programs are offered completely online, bringing training to professionals all over the world.
Enhancing Future Post-Secondary Learning for Students with Autism
A logical next step is to apply technology to the delivery of higher education to support adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum. Technology allows for accommodations to be built directly into the curriculum, individualized programming, and support for students in new and effective ways. In the online classroom, content can be offered in multiple formats, allowing students to choose the style that best matches individual learning needs. Those who are visual learners can read the information, auditory learners can listen to it, and anyone can access content multiple times as needed. Assessments can also be offered in multiple formats, allowing professors and students to think outside the box. Auditory essays, choice of test format, and other accommodations can be readily available with a little preparation on the instructor’s part, reducing stress on the student and maintaining focus on the learning.
One common complaint of high school students on the autism spectrum who are struggling in mainstream settings is that each teacher does things a little differently. These small differences can be extremely challenging to students who are limited by deficiencies in executive functioning. Not only does an online education remove the challenges of navigating a campus and filtering out extraneous social and other stimuli, but it also allows for consistency in formatting. Students can focus on the material, rather than worrying about relearning systems and procedures with each new professor and each new class.
Technology can maintain personal contact between college students and those who support them by removing geographic and time barriers, as well. Skype, phone, email, and other ways of connecting are excellent tools for connecting at whatever level is needed for the student to succeed. Some college students might Skype with a professor or mentor on a daily basis, while others might benefit from text messaging to remind them of upcoming due dates and provide small doses of support and encouragement.
Individuals on the autism spectrum of all ages can benefit from these and other uses of technology. Families and school districts have eagerly engaged with the growth in technology. The Achieve Degree at The Sage Colleges is a fully online bachelor’s program for students with autism and other special needs that takes full advantage of technology to create unique opportunities for students who would not otherwise be willing or able to attend college. As colleges like Sage use technology to create unique opportunities for students who would not otherwise be willing or able to attend college, perhaps we will start to see a shift in the outcomes that can be expected for students with autism after high school.