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How Technology Can Improve Post-Secondary Outcomes for Students with Autism

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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.

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Melanie Link Taylor's picture

It is true online learning will eliminate many stressors from the experience of the autistic student. But please don't forget the benefits of meeting socialization challenges!

Virginia Largent's picture
Virginia Largent
Director of the Virginia Beach School of the Arts

While technology is wonderful an affords many otherwise unobtainable opportunities, many children with autism (as well as ADD/ADHD & sensory disorders) have an undeveloped visual and aural nervous system. Viewing 2 dimensional images for any length of time may only exacerbate this issue. Their fight or flight response from images being received in the cortex from their peripheral vision will not be filtered out because of underdeveloped lower brain centers (mainly the pons and mid brain centers). Fixation on the screen may input academic information into students with fixation issues but it does nothing to eliminate the root cause of the problem. After teaching for over 20 years, I have yet to meet a students with ADD/ADHD (autism & sensory issues) who fully completed the necessary sensory motor stages the normal infant goes through between 2 & 14 months. THIS IS A BRAIN issue, not a syndrome and I have seen DRAMATIC results when therapies have been implemented to complete brain development stages that were skipped in the first year of life. We as educators owe it to our students and future generations to eliminate these issues and not just treat the symptoms thinking that we have done our job if the child can recite academic information.

Cindy Ramos's picture
Cindy Ramos
I am a teacher & BCaBA working with children with autism.

I wholeheartedly agree with the use of technology as a tool to facilitate learning. There are many programs such as Social Express and Conversation Builder that can serve as great tools to teach many children, especially the higher functioning children, with autism, Asperger's, ADHD-Social Type (In the DSM-5) the basics in how to engage in meaning conversational exchanges. The graphics are great and some of them are almost 3 dimensional in appearance. I use the social apps as a primer immediately before my students with social challenges are about to engage in social interactions (i.e. recess or free play). It is very interesting to watch the children respond so positively, and access the tools they are taught in the classroom and then reinforced by the apps. For example, one of my students with AU was having difficulty understanding why he lost a race with a peer because he took a break when he was tired. Although, I attempted to explain the premises of a race I could see that he was beginning to escalate. All I had to do was tell him to, " remember his tools," and he immediately started deep breathing and calmed down within seconds. Obviously we went back and revisited "race rules" once he was calm and emotionally available. This is a child that would escalate to the point of elopement. Instead he calmed himself down and continued to play with his neurotypical peers.
I would like to offer a caveat on the use of technology, and that is that it should never replace actual person to person social interactions. As great as it is to assist our students in learning by removing some of the barriers, we must remember that the world is a social place. We must always strive to teach our students to learn how to function in a social environment. After all, maintaining a job/career, relationships, grocery shopping, and all the other mundane tasks that we need as adults to establish independence require navigation in the social world. l

Caroline Webber's picture

Technology will play a huge role in bridging the gap between people with disabilities and their ability to feel useful contribute in modern society. Voice to text technology for one is a great example of what is possible.

Annabel's picture

Through technologies it will help students with autism to develop their cognitive skills and more. Aside from that they will able to learn how to use gadgets like mobile phones, computers, tablets and more. There's a lot more things to learn from technologies.

Becky's picture

I agree that technology is an excellent tool for educators, especially for teaching students with Autism. Technology provides many opportunities for these students, including games, videos, and applications for communication. Although technology is becoming more popular in schools, some teachers believe that technology is too big of a distraction for students. A lot of students go on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter instead of using the technology to learn new information.

ML's picture
Special Education Teacher

Technology is a great way for students to interact with peers as well as gain knowledge on current practices. I do feel however that there are certain social skills that we need to help our children master.

Ghibli Kang's picture
Ghibli Kang
im interested in Education setion.Because the education is the future

I agree with all the things that you mentioned, and techonology is an amazing tool to help education. But we have not to forget about the funtion of technology. Technology is a tool. Exactly, that's enough and no more than function. The main education is that teach student face to face.Using a technology is the second way to teaching. We teachers strive to teach student face to face, not only using a technology. The point is that technology is the only assistance.

msyeager's picture

I agree that technology especially with these students is a great tool to both engage them and can act as a communication tool. As a college student, I never made the correlation of how much we rely on technology with our professors and our classes. With these students they can have the same experience. Technology will be able to motivate them to accomplish their work and at the same time they will be able to communicate with both their peers and the professor without the difficulty and stress that communication creates. In a world where technology is becoming a part of our lives, it is being used a tool and assistance for students who would have difficulty surviving in society without it.

Jake Snyder's picture

Technology is an excellent resource for teachers to use with their students! Especially those who have special needs. It is not only highly motivating but it also opens the door for learning opportunities for our students that may not be there otherwise. However, teachers who choose to use technology need to be mindful of why they are using the technology. Is the technology being used as a supplement to the content? Or is it being used simply for the sake of using it. Technology cannot take the place of effective teacher to student instruction.

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