Technology continues to advance our society in many ways, solving a range of problems we face and improving our quality of life. In particular, technology has played a huge role in both helping people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and understanding the disability itself.
Affecting around 700,000 people in the UK, ASD encompasses a number of behaviours such as difficulties with communication, social interaction, repetitive habits and highly focused interests. Whilst these behaviours differ in each person and vary in extremity, roughly 20-30% of autistic people are non-verbal with many others identifying as having low-functioning communication abilities. Tackling this hurdle of communication is of paramount importance to improving the quality of life for autistic people, as the inability to communicate can severely impact educational access, personal development and lead to negative behaviour.
However, advances in technology have been aiding people with ASD, increasing their verbal skills, social skills and self-confidence. This is due to the fact that many people with ASD are visual learners, processing information better through observing pictures and words. One way communication for autistic people is being improved is through apps called “visual scene displays” that provide an alternative communication platform, giving context to common social situations. Some of these apps even turn symbols into speech, providing even easier access.
For children with ASD, technology within the classroom has altered learning dramatically. A school in LA for students with ASD rolled out collaborative STEM projects that focus on computer-aided design programs, 3D printers and robotics. Through learning in a practical environment where students were able to construct objects, a change in behaviour was seen between peers and parents alike, with one parent talking about his son stating:
Before, he wouldn’t talk much about his day. Now, he comes home and has conversations with me about what he did at school.
A school in Australia that was specifically for ASD children invested in 30 sphero robots in an attempt to offer students different ways to develop their social, academic and emotional skills. The robotic balls can be programmed by users and operated remotely. They were used in various activities by students, from engaging them in gardening to teaching code and being a part of collaborative projects. Craig Smith the deputy principal within the school talked of the sphero robots and how they were impacting the children saying:
It’s almost like they were brave and overcame their anxieties for the sake of showing Sphero
More recently, biometric wristbands that can detect severe anxiety in people through changes in skin temperature, heart rate, sweating and movement are being trialled within the UK for the first time with ASD people. Appearing similar to a fitness tracker monitor, the wristband is able to predict high levels of anxiety, allowing timely intervention to reduce levels of stress by a loved one, carer or teacher. This is extremely important as often high levels of stress can lead to negative behaviour in ASD people such as aggression and self injury, which can be often be distressing for them.
It’s clear that technology is breaking down boundaries for people with ASD, changing their lives positively, and in many instances allowing them to thrive. This will hopefully continue in line with the production of new innovative technology, greater awareness and increased research into ASD and how to help those who have it.