Technologies Aiding People with Autism
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
In the early 1900s, when research first began on autism, scientists thought that the cause of the condition was unloving parents—especially mothers, and it was them that they sought to treat instead of the children.
As research progressed in the fifties and sixties and the focus shifted to kids, autistic children underwent brutal methods of “treatment” like hallucinogenic drugs, electroshock therapy and getting hit. Along with no knowledge of the disability, such cruel behavior was also enabled due to the outlook of the time, when people with autism were viewed as subhuman.
The situation changed in the nineties. As we learned more and more about the condition, children who were earlier thought to have other mental disorders were given the appropriate autism diagnosis.
Because of better screening methods, increased awareness, a wider criterion of diagnosis and improved access to healthcare, the last twenty years have seen a dramatic increase in autism cases: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, states that the estimated number of autism cases in the US is up from 1 in every 125 children in 2004 to 1 in every 54 children in 2020, an increase of 131%.
Such awareness has also brought about a change in attitudes towards autistic people. Far from the torturous treatments of the fifties and sixties, now therapies like applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, behavior management therapy and early intervention are used to help autistic people function independently. Technologies like augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems and speech generating devices have replaced the hallucinogenic drugs, beatings and electroshock methods.
In this post we’ll talk about autism, its causes, how technology is helping autistic people, the kinds of such technologies currently in use, the disadvantages of such technologies, and what you can do as a parent, employer/employee and citizen to bring about autism-friendly changes to public spaces.
What is Autism?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism, or autism spectrum disorder is “a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave.” The World Health Organization says that autism affects about one in 100 children worldwide.
There is no one kind of autism. A spectrum disorder, it has various subtypes that are influenced by many genetic and environmental factors; each person has a unique set of strengths and challenges.
People on the autism spectrum usually have symptoms that challenge their abilities to function in various areas of life, show repetitive behaviors and have trouble interacting and communicating with others.
Autism can usually be identified at 2 or 3 years of age. Intervening early leads to more positive outcomes for people with autism.
Causes of Autism
Autism does not have a single cause. Usually there are two kinds of risk factors: genetic and environmental.
Gene changes increase the risk of a child developing autism. Sometimes such gene changes could pass from parent to child, who will develop autism even if the parent doesn’t have it. These changes may also occur in the early embryo or the egg or sperm making the embryo.
Environmental factors such as advanced age of parents, pregnancies occurring less than one month apart and birth and pregnancy complications also increase the risk of autism.
How does technology help people with autism?
Technologies helping people with autism are called Assistive Technologies (AT). One of the main signs pointing to autism is having trouble with communication and interaction. Technologies dealing with autism are largely geared towards improving communication. In this research article reviewing technologies helping with autism, 87 per cent of the technologies were working towards improving social behavior, attention and communication in autistic individuals.
Improving communication and social behavior is one step closer towards an improvement in functional life skills too, so that a person with autism can live independently.
Kinds of assistive technologies
Assistive technology is usually divided into three levels: low-tech, mid-tech and high-tech.
Low-tech: Low-tech assistive technology means equipment that doesn’t run on electricity. Examples are slant boards, graphic organizers, weighted vests and adaptive paper.
Mid-tech: Mid-tech AT is comparatively cheap and easy to handle. Examples are scooters, gait-trainers, audio books and screen magnifiers.
High-tech: According to Georgia Tech, high-tech AT is complex, has ‘digital or electronic components, (and) may be computerized.’ Examples are augmentative and alternative communication devices, powered wheelchairs and eye-gaze technology.
Technologies aiding communication
Children with ASD can have a tough time understanding social cues and other unsaid, understood behaviors that govern our daily interactions. Technology can help them improve their communication by intervening and instructing them individually in areas they have trouble communicating in.
There are many ways technology can help with communication, such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and mobile gadgets like speech generating devices (SGDs) which can help in non-verbal communication.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication
In AAC systems, tasks, objects, actions or concepts are coupled with hand signs or pictures. Along with the object’s picture / hand sign, the spoken word for it is also used simultaneously. As its name suggests, AAC is augmentative when it is used to aid ineffective / limited speech, and it is alternative when used to replace speech for non-verbal or non-speaking people.
AAC systems are of two kinds: unaided and aided. Unaided systems are equipment-less. They’re operated using hand signs and gestures. Aided AAC systems can be “high-tech” or “low-tech”:
Low-tech AAC includes books with pictures, boards and cards, and
High-tech AAC systems consist of technologies like speech-generating devices.
AAC systems work because both the sound and the image of the object is remembered by children, and it especially helps those kids who learn better when information is presented visually. Also, this system helps children comprehend words better. This is because in contrast to speech, images stay still and last longer, which gives a child time to understand the information.
Speech generating devices
High-tech aided AAC systems also use ‘speech-generating devices’. Speech-generating devices, or SGDs, are “hand-held electronic devices that play pre-recorded words or phrases”, according to raisingchildren.net.au, an Australian parenting site. They primarily help speech-impaired people convey words electronically. It also aids some autistic children in developing speech and language.
Problems in cultivating speech and language often mean that some autistic children find it difficult to share their thoughts and needs, which can be frustrating for them. SGDs help here since they provide children a way to communicate, which can relieve frustration and help with their behavior.
Technologies aiding social skills
It can be difficult for autistic children to learn social skills. Learning and improving social skills is important because it cultivates autonomy: parents and guardians can’t always be present to communicate for their ward.
There are many ATs available on different scales that help with social skills.
At the low-tech end, ATs include social stories and social skills cards and games. Social stories are simple visual stories meant to help autistic people learn to behave aptly in any social setting. These social stories can portray normal everyday scenarios to help acquaint autistic people with such interactions.
Games meant to improve social skills include games similar to Uno or Chutes and Ladders that have specific objectives such as focusing on empathy or feelings.
The mid-tech range includes apps and video modeling.
Apps have an interactive platform, which enables people to pick areas of their liking they want to get better in and practice and receive feedback as well. Such apps can help autistic people understand emotions, learn words and communicate.
With video modeling, autistic children learn new skills and behaviors by watching videos of other people behaving or acting out such skills. Such videos can cover a range of behaviors, from everyday greetings to asking someone out on a date.
High-tech ATs can get very technical and are expensive. They include robots and interactive artificial intelligence and aim to build social skills in autistic people in an atmosphere that is interactive and free from risk.
High-tech ATs can be used for a variety of purposes. This can range from getting children to be more open to human therapists and lessen any discomforts during the therapy, to “socially assistive robots” that teach kids different skills like socializing and mathematics.
Drawbacks of assistive technology
While we have discussed all the ways in which technology helps out autistic people, it is important to talk about its disadvantages too to get a balanced picture of the entire situation.
Screen-time, which is almost unavoidable in mid-tech and high-tech AT, seems to be the root problem.
Getting addicted to screen-based technology is a major disadvantage. Even with smaller amounts of exposure, autistic children are more prone to developing screen addiction.
Coupled with addiction comes the problem of erratic sleep. Since autistic children usually have a lack of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin, they have trouble falling asleep. Screen-time further suppresses melatonin, adding to the problem.
Impaired social skills
Also, ironically, screen-time is also a culprit behind hindering social skills because it impairs the ability to read body language and facial expressions, eye contact and empathy, traits autistic people already struggle with.
Fueling anxiety and OCD
Screen-time can also fuel anxiety. It is in fact linked with increased risk of social anxiety and OCD.
What you can do to make your surroundings more autism-friendly
The development of assistive technologies has been revolutionary for autistic people. For a condition that was recognized only in the twentieth century, and serious efforts to study it being undertaken only in the nineties, the amount of equipment that has come up to aid autistic people in that time is impressive. But progress should not stop here.
It is crucial that our institutions should have ATs and other autism-friendly facilities so that more and more autistic people can participate in the public sphere, make their voices heard. Here’s what you can do to support and create autism-inclusive initiatives in your surroundings:
As a parent
The best way to help a school bring in autism-friendly initiatives is to form an autism parent-school committee. This idea is particularly effective when parents with autistic kids are part of such committees, since they best know the educational needs of an autistic child and can provide valuable inputs to help schools become more autism-friendly.
Such committees can also prevent litigations since the parents and the school administration can talk over problems and reach solutions before such problems cause tensions that may lead to lawsuits.
As an employer/employee
You can make your workplace more autism-friendly by adopting a stable and predictable regimen in the office. By planning meetings in advance and minimizing interruptions you can help colleagues on the spectrum focus and help them maintain higher levels of productivity.
Clarity of instruction is another way to make yourself easily understood to your autistic colleagues. Make sure instructions aren’t vague, trim the unwanted details, and help your colleagues through any abrupt changes in the strategy by informing them and offering to help them prioritize tasks.
As a citizen
You can support autism-inclusive initiatives by supporting autism-friendly businesses and sharing resources like articles and posts spreading autism awareness to people in your community.
You can also get behind campaigns aiming to make public places more autism-friendly, like National Autistic Society’s successful goal of amassing more than 10,000 signatures endorsing an open letter they then sent to the Department of Transport in England, suggesting changes like staff training and timely updates for passengers to make public transport more accessible to autistic people.
Assistive technologies do a great job of preparing autistic people for the challenges of everyday life. Communication and social skills are crucial for a human being to function with autonomy, and by helping autistic people improve in these areas, coupled with initiatives taken by individuals to push for more autism-friendly surroundings, even greater progress can be made to put people with autism at par with the rest of the population.