Understanding Technology and Autism

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There has been a lot of recent news about how technology and video games impact children with autism. Much of what has been written has raised legitimate concerns about how excessive use of technology or exposure to “addictive” games (such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games) can have a negative impact on children with autism. By observation, it is apparent that some children affected by autism will often pay far more attention to technology than to the people around them. Generally, this preference for non-human interaction is not a good thing. However, this is only side of the coin.

Parents and educators of children affected by autism will quickly tell you about the many ways that technology can help their children with communication, sharing interests with others, self-regulation, and developing a sense of personal competence. Technology can help children with autism better understand and recognize feelings, develop cognitive flexibility, develop expressive and receptive vocabulary, and reduce repetitive behaviors. Beyond the observations of parents and educators there are also well-researched reasons for how and why technology and autism can be a powerful combination.

Here are some of the main reasons why understanding the combination of technology and autism is so important:

1.) Time spent with social digital media is beneficial. Researchers such as Shane and Albert (2008) have consistently shown that children affected by autism spend far more of their time in individual media activities such as watching television or playing one-player video games. We recommend that parents of children affected by autism insist that at least half of their technology interests be social.

2.) Non-social digital media provides a “safe space” for kids with autism. Children with autism are attracted to computers and games. A study by Sweetenham (1996) revealed three primary connections between computer technology and autism:  computers involve no social factors,  computers are consistent and predictable, and children can take control and determine the pace of activity. Messier (2007) conducted an interview study with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder that suggested that they are motivated by the skills and challenges of video games and escaping into a fantasy reality. We recommend the use of games and apps that involve strategy, problem solving, and adaptability, challenging children with autism to build upon existing skills and not stay in their comfort zone.

3.) Technology commonly exercises visual-spacial skills. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may display specific visual-spatial strengths that draw them to video games. For example, studies suggest that children with autism tend to find hidden figures more easily than typically-developing peers in an embedded figures test, suggesting that they might be better at video games involving hidden figures. Select games such as Super Hexagon, Echochrome and Portal 2 can build upon other spatial-reasoning skills.

4.) Technology may enhance the drive for learning. Autism researchers such as Christina Whalen have identified motivation, attention, and flexibility as important tools for teaching children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and describe how TeachTown, a video-game like tool for developing social and emotional competencies, increases the effort and attention of children affected by autism. We suggest that using popular, fun games and technology such as New Super Mario Bros UTumblr or Pinterest can serve both as a reward for effort with social and academic demands, as well as an engaging tool for improving social and communication skills.

Our Series on Autism in the Digital Age:

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