How can computers and technology help autistic children?

Autism, or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), is the name given to a range of similar conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome. Autistic Disorder is also referred to as ‘classic’ autism and is the most common. Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) is sometimes called ‘atypical’ autism.

autism and computing

We often hear people described as being ‘on the autistic spectrum’. It’s true that such a spectrum exists can those diagnosed with autism can experience mild to severe symptoms. In general, there are common characteristics shared by all people who are autistic. Firstly, there have deficits in communication and social interaction. Secondly, autistic people have a limited range of interests. They exhibit repetitive patterns of behaviour and can become unsettled if routines are disturbed.

Popular culture would have us believe that all people with autism spectrum disorder are automatically maths, science and computing geniuses. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t true. After all, it would be like finding out that all blue-eyed people are automatically better at swimming. Humans are individuals. We all have unique talents and interests. This goes for both autistic and non-autistic people alike.

Autism is not a disease that can be cured; it is a condition that can be managed. As such a wide-ranging set of conditions, no single ‘method’ will be effective with all autistic children. However, there is much evidence to suggest that computers can be really helpful for autistic children. In this post, we look at why this is the case and give helpful advice so that parents can ensure that autistic children benefit the most from using devices.

What’s so important about using technology?

Technology is absolutely everywhere. It is important that both parents and their children make a point of learning how to use computers and know how to make the most of their devices. In this respect, all children need to become confident and comfortable with technology.

However, there are several technological benefits that can be particularly beneficial to children on the autistic spectrum. Computers enable children to learn new skills in an engaging and accessible way. Computers can be really useful as a means to motivate. Much has been said about the effect of computer/tablet use can have on a child’s concentration. There are conflicting views, but there is evidence to suggest that skills-based activity on a computer is good for communication.

Computers enable a child to become an expert in something that they have a specific interest in. Developing knowledge and expertise brings with it independence. Children will then learn to make their own choices to dictate the direction of their learning and play.

Technology can also be useful as a way of regulating moods and improving well-being, from apps that are designed to alleviate anxiety to something as simple as spending time watching entertaining YouTube videos.

Apps and software can allow children to make more contact with their peers (and teachers), and the common interest of computing shared between your child and others enable strong relationships and friendships to be formed.

It should be noted that none of the benefits detailed above are exclusively for autistic children. They can be beneficial for all – it’s just that they do help to address some of the key symptoms of autism

Computing as a Leisure Activity

It’s important to remember that for many families, devices are more than just a learning tool. If you tend to find it difficult to get your child to sit down and, for example, read a story with you, your devices can come in handy. There are lots of great storytelling apps out there with interactive features which your child may find more immersive than a storybook. 

Using Computers to Improve Communication

Many children with autism find it helpful to use resources such as picture communication systems, social stories and visual timetables in order to better communicate with the people around them. Most of these are now available for all smartphones and tablets.

Applications for smartphones and tablets allow you to create all of the schedules, stories and symbols your child could possibly need. What’s more, thanks to the small size of today’s technology, these resources can now be carried around easily and much less noticeably.

Technological advances have come much further than a few images on a screen, though! There are loads of apps out there now which can help those who are non-verbal to communicate by providing them with a digital voice. The user simply needs to construct a sentence using symbols, and the app will speak the sentence out loud.

Of course, as audio-output apps are very much in their infancy, it is difficult to ascertain the full impact that such apps has the language development of children with autism. It is advisable to choose communication apps for your child with great care.

For example, if your child is still at a stage where they are learning to speak, picture communication apps which require your child to show symbols to their conversational partner might be the best option. Meanwhile, if your child is an adolescent who is still non-verbal or has a limited vocabulary, audio-output apps can be a better choice.

Software offers control without surprises

One of the key benefits of software development for those with autism is that it provides a controlled environment without surprises. In general, this is something that will be a good fit for many autistic people.

Overall, it is vital to bear in mind that just as not all autistic children are geniuses, neither should autism prevent children from leading very successful and happy lives. In terms of technology, it is about finding the software and apps that allow the autistic child to develop and grow organically – something that ‘brings the best out’ of the child.

There are even some companies that almost exclusively employ autistic people, although not in roles that require considerable interaction with people, such as HR and sales.