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How Does Assistive Technology Help?
Assistive technology for students with autism can improve:
- attention span
- communication skills
- self-help skills
- academic understanding
- social skills
- motivation to learn or complete a task
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Types of Assistive Technology
Types of assistive technology for students with autism include:
- robotic toys
- visual representation systems
- voice output communication aids
- video taping
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Robotic toys and dolls have been used with autistic children to enhance social skills, lessen anxiety and teach academic concepts. Studies have shown that children with autism are more likely to make eye contact and touch robotic toys than other classroom objects. According to Crt Marincek, author of Assistive Technology: Added Value to the Quality of Life, robots are "sufficiently interesting" and autistic children "seem able to interact and play with [them] for a substantial time comparative to 'normal' toys." Robots can move around the child's environment, play music, and give visual and vocal cues. They can make the child feel more comfortable in new places, or reinforce positive behavior.
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Visual Representation Systems
Students with autism are often visual learners, meaning they respond better to pictures and images than to written or verbal information. Visual representation systems use pictures or icons to represent concepts, and can be used in many different situations. A popular method with autistic children is visual schedules.
The child's daily activities are represented by pictures and placed in order on a schedule board. This helps the child know what to expect next and aids with transitions. Another use of visual representation systems is directional icons. Images can show basic skills such as brushing teeth, or can outline more complex directions such as homework steps. Tasks are broken down into smaller steps, and the child can remove each image after that step is complete until the whole task is done.
In the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), the student with autism can bring an icon representing a desired item to a teacher or caregiver. The desired item is then given in exchange for the icon. According to autism consultant Susan Stokes, "the use of this type of communication system provides the child with a way to communicate and most importantly, teaches the child to spontaneously initiate a functional communicative exchange."
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Voice Output Communication Aids
Voice output communication aids are essentially higher tech visual representation systems. The autistic child can push an icon button to request an object, or messages can be recorded for the child. Messages can be recorded in sequence to help a child through the steps of a task, or single words can encourage the child to communicate themselves. These devices are helpful in busy classrooms to attract a teacher's attention when a child needs help, and are particularly useful with non verbal autistic children. Voice output aids tend to be appealing to children and most are battery operated, making them portable and light.
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Recorded video can be used in numerous different ways as assistive technology for students with autism. Situations can be recorded and replayed to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behaviors in particular settings such as in social interactions with peers. Important academic concepts can be taught through video tapes. Children are more likely to attend to recorded images and are more typically willing to watch tapes multiple times.
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Marincek, C et al. Assistive Technology: Added Value to the Quality of Life. IOS Press, 2001.
Stokes, Susan. Assistive Technology for Children with Autism. http://www.specialed.us/autism/assist/asst10.htm.