By: Amy Black, MS, BCBA®, LBA
Technology is used in almost all areas of life to simplify tasks, save time and improve convenience. But perhaps one of the most valuable uses of technology is when it is used to help individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Individuals with ASD struggle in many areas and ABA therapy can be used to teach them the skills they are missing to help them attain a happy and independent life. However, many times, therapy sessions alone are not enough. Many individuals need more permanent assistance to help them reach their goals of integrating into the community and accessing all that they need. Here is where technology enters the picture. There are many forms of technology that can be used to help individuals access the skills they are lacking, and when we use technology alongside ABA therapy, we can accomplish so much more.
Technology to Assist with Communication
Communication deficits are one of the core and primary symptoms of ASD. According to recent research, approximately 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with ASD and approximately one third of those children are non-verbal (Autism Speaks, 2020). Assistive and augmentative communication (AAC) devices started being commonly used in the 1980’s to help individuals communicate with others without the use of vocal speech. These devices have evolved over time and with the advancements of technology have become increasingly complex in capability and simpler to use. With electronic devices becoming more readily available, many individuals don’t require a dedicated, costly, and intrusive AAC device anymore. There is a large amount of assistive communication apps available that can be downloaded and used on any personal device. So if an individual already has personal device that is used throughout the day (e.g., smartphone, tablet, PDA), instead of carrying around an additional AAC device, the individual can simply use his existing device to communicate with others.
Knowing which communication app to choose is important since every person is unique and has specific needs and capabilities. A speech language pathologist and/or BCBA® can assist in determining which app would suit an individual best.
A commonly used assistive communication app is one where the individual can select one word pictures or icons, create sentences out of pictures, or use a keyboard to type. The words or sentences selected by the individual are vocally spoken out by the app allowing the individual to have a method of communication that is audible and easily understood by others. These apps are extremely customizable and can be set up for both early learners and advanced communicators.
There are also other communication apps that use gestures instead of selections. Instead of the individual selecting the specific word or picture, a gesture is made on the screen (e.g., swipe up, double tap) which then causes the app to speak out the word or phrase that is paired with that gesture.
Lastly, for individuals with severely limited motor movement, eye gaze AAC devices can be used. This device tracks the individual’s eye gaze and the individual can select words, pictures, phrases or type using a keyboard.
Collaboration between the BCBA® and speech therapist is key when teaching an individual to communicate using any of the above options.
Technology to Assist with Task Completion
Many individuals with ASD benefit from having a clear schedule of tasks or activities to complete. This can be for leisure purposes or work purposes and is helpful in increasing independence. However, when teaching individuals with ASD to complete tasks that contain multiple steps, for some, prompts can be difficult to fade out and true independence is difficult to achieve. To assist with this, there are many apps that can be used to provide built in prompts, reminders or checklists.
Visual schedule apps can help the individual stay on task and progress from one activity to the next. Some apps just have a list of activities or steps of activities that the individual can check off as they complete. Others have more detailed instructions within each step coaching the individual on how to complete that step or activity. These instructions can be set up via pictures, text or videos. Additionally, some apps have a time component in which the individual is reminded to move on to the next task/step after a specified amount of time has passed. The timer can be visual, auditory, or a combination of both. All of these apps can be crucial in helping individuals who are prompt dependent enjoy a more self-sufficient life by being able to carry out both leisure and required activities on their own.
Technology to Assist with Social Skills Training
Social skills deficits are another core and primary deficit of ASD that are worked on during ABA therapy. With all skills taught during ABA therapy, repetition is key in ensuring acquisition of the skill. Additionally, role modeling is strategy commonly used with teaching social skills. When working on interpersonal skills, having a peer accurately role play the scenario multiple times can be challenging. Therefore, the use of a simple video camera can be very helpful in contriving multiple practice opportunities. In addition to using a video camera to create role play opportunities, it can also be a powerful tool when used to video the individual himself in a social situation so that the individual can watch a playback of the scenario and point out what should have been done and what shouldn’t have been done.
Another interesting use for videos to assist with social skills training is for behavioral prompts. For some individuals, it is difficult for them to remember how to act in difficult or unexpected situations. What can then happen, is that the individual becomes dependent on someone else to coach them on how to react and what to do every time a situation arises. To address this issue, short coaching videos can be created, labeled by type of situation and stored on any device that the individual uses. Then, if a situation comes up and the individual is unsure how to react, instead of requiring a live person’s coaching, the individual can find the relevant video on their device and get coached independently.
Technology as a Reinforcer and Leisure Activity
Technology is often a strong attraction to individuals with ASD and can be channeled into a leisure activity. There are hundreds of educational apps that can be used for constructive leisure purposes and furthermore, these leisure activities can be used as motivators and reinforcers during ABA therapy. The more the individual enjoys the activity, the stronger and more potent of a reinforcer it can become. When it functions as a strong reinforcer, it can then help the individual acquire skills in all areas being targeted.
Using Technology with Caution
The key goal of ABA therapy is to increase the individual’s social interaction and social communication skills so that they can access social reinforcement in their lives. Therefore, when choosing goals to target in therapy and types of assistive technology to use, one must always make sure that they are socially significant to the individual. The goals and tools being used need to be easily used in daily life and help the individual attain a happy, productive and independent life.
Autism Speaks. (2020). Autism facts and figures. Retrieved from (https://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-facts-and-figures)
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