What is Assistive Technology?
Assistive technology (AT) is defined as any product, equipment, software program and/or system that enhances learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities.
The goal of assistive technology is to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities (ATIA).
Think about all of the skills that your child, teen, or adult with autism works hard to learn and demonstrate every day - academic, social, vocational, and life skills. Assistive technology can enable independence and participation in all of these areas!
Benefits of Assistive Technology for People with Autism
Increased independence with daily living, mobility, play, vocational, and academic tasks
Increased level of participation within tasks/daily routines
Increased access to materials
Improved sense of self and self-esteem
Increased opportunities for inclusion with peers
Enables engage in purposeful, meaningful activities
Improved communication skills - both verbally and nonverbally
Improved ability to demonstrate skills/competencies
Assistive technology makes things possible. We all benefit from technology but some people with disabilities require technology to participate, show what they know, or be more independent.
A Continuum of Assistive Technology Tools
Just as there is a spectrum of skills and abilities when we talk about a child with a diagnosis of autism, there is a continuum of assistive technology supports that range from low tech, mid tech, and high tech tools.
Low-tech AT - tools that do not need batteries or electricity to operate. These are commonly found in a multisensory, differentiated classroom as “accommodations” and require little-to-no training to operate. Chances are that your student with autism already benefits from some low tech AT tools like a pencil grip, slantboard, modified visual schedule, use of icon/picture/symbols, or velcro sneakers.
Mid-tech AT - tools require a bit more training as they may be battery-operated and add a level of specialization that low-tech tools might otherwise not. An example of a mid-tech AT support could be a multiple-message voice output device like a Big Mack (switch), audiobooks, or screen magnifiers.
High Tech AT - The most complex AT supports require the most training on their use, as they are highly specialized and customizable based on individual needs. High-tech assistive technology tools are usually electrically-powered devices such as tablets, communication devices, specialized computer software, and motorized wheelchairs. These tools have more capabilities and features that warrant ongoing assistive technology consultation and training.
Communication Skills, AAC, and AT
If you’re a parent of a non-verbal child with autism, your child may use augmentative alternative communication tools (AAC). AAC is a category of assistive technology that directly supports a person’s ability to communicate. These tools can range from low-tech supports like communication boards, picture exchange (PECS) systems, or object schedules, to mid-tech spoken messages on a pre-programmed switch, to high-tech communication devices with robust language systems.
If you’re lucky enough to have a speech and language therapist who is skilled in the area of assistive technology services, you have experienced a specialty practice areas within the AT field. Unfortunately, some parents and educators mistakenly think that this experience with AAC is their child’s only AT need. It may not be!
Assistive technology is not limited to one recommendation or tool - A skilled assistive technology specialist will assess all of your child’s needs across environments, tasks, and skills. This could mean that your child’s communication skills are addressed through the AAC system, but what about all of the other tasks they do on a daily basis?
Considerations for Assistive Technology Use
The following skills are all areas that assistive technology can support a person with autism:
Social skills - You're likely already familiar with social stories as an instructional tool to teach your child social skills. Your child may use apps such as Pictello, Book Creator, or Little Bird Tales to create and review these social skills expectations in multi-sensory ways. These apps and similar programs provide supported visual information (text highlighting when read, pictures or icon-supported text), auditory feedback (text read aloud/narration), and video modeling in order to communicate and teach social skills.
Play - Children with autism can have delays or difficulties in motor coordination skills. If your child does not have the fine motor skills to manipulate the toys that their peers are playing with, assistive technology services can help to adapt the way that toys are accessed.
Communication - Communication can look very different based on the task, environment, and individual skills of the child. As we discussed earlier, AT tools can vary along the continuum based on the child’s needs.
Writing - Writing is a motor task but at its core, it is communication! Tools for writing can include supports at each step of the writing process: ideation, planning, and actual writing production (or typing). Recently, assistive technology companies such as Don Johnston have been designing writing curriculums for complex learners to engage as authors with varied supports. Even if your child does not have the ability to hold a pencil or spell words, he/she can still be a “writer!”
Assistive Technology tools for writing can vary from low-tech graphic organizers, pencil grips, and adapted paper, to more mid-tech icon-supported writing or tape recorders for oral rehearsal of ideas. High-tech AT for writing offers extensive writing and many robust AAC programs can be used to facilitate the writing process.
Examples of AT considerations for writing include: speech-to-text (voice typing), word prediction, word or phrase banks, electronic graphic organizers or mind mapping tools, and multi-sensory digital presentation tools.
Reading - Reading is another academic task that integrates many critical skills: holding a book, visually attending to text and pictures, decoding (reading the words), comprehension (understanding what is read), and visually scanning multiple lines of text and complex pictures. Whether your child needs a slantboard to prop the book, text-to-speech programming that reads text aloud, audiobooks to appeal to the auditory system, or a simple reading window to minimize visual distractions on the page, there is an AT tool to support him!
Math - Multi-sensory instructional tools for math can involve the different sensory systems to teach concepts. If your child is a visual learner, there are math apps and programs that use video modeling, electronic manipulatives, and varied visual presentation of materials that can engage learners beyond rote pencil-and-paper activities. Math also includes time concepts, money management, and measurement - all of these skills tie into life skills that have vocational and daily uses. Assistive technology companies have designed curriculums like this one from AbleNet that programs for accommodations and AT supports to teach math concepts to students with diverse learning needs.
Activities of Daily Living - Your child’s occupational therapist has likely identified ADL skills that are hopefully addressed in therapy - these can include tasks like dressing, fastening buttons/snaps/velcro, tying shoes, making simple meals, grooming, eating. Oftentimes, the AT supports for these tasks include making adaptations for motor difficulties. For example, velcro becomes an AT tool for kids who cannot tie their shoes.
Executive Functioning: Planning, Organization, Attention, Task Completion...All of these executive functioning skills have the potential to limit a child’s independence. Assistive technology supports for executive functioning are all designed to maximize independence while accommodating for these skill deficits. Visual schedules, timers, wearable technology supports, calendar systems, and virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana can all fade the adult-support needed to keep kids on-task, remind or prompt transitions, and help structure multi-step activities.
Assistive Technology in the IEP
Assistive technology makes it possible for educational materials, environments, and experiences to be accessible to students with autism. If your child were to move classrooms or schools and the teaching tools were no longer available to him, would it impede his ability to learn or show what he knows? It's an important question to ask as you look at how your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is written.
It's easy to overlook the mentions of "assistive technology" in the pages of other critical information listed on your IEP. The federal law: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your child's IEP team consider assistive technology supports as part of the IEP development process. This resource from the Center on Technology and Disability is a wonderful guide to help parents understand all that goes into truly "considering" whether AT is needed for a student to make progress.
The topic of assistive technology should be one that enters into your IEP conversations at least during the annual review meetings, as students' needs change over the course of their educational careers.