Navigating technology use with children is never easy, and for parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), those challenges can be all the more complex. While every child with ASD is different, many share common issues with overstimulation, frustration, and difficulty communicating. Luckily, certain technologies can directly address common stressors for children with ASD, reducing overstimulation and encouraging learning and communication. To best address your child’s specific needs, implement new technology tools slowly with careful attention to your child’s experience.
“It is important to look carefully at what your child and family need and then find the apps to meet that need,” says Vicki Clarke, speech language pathologist, augmentative communication specialist, and president of Dynamic Therapy Associates, Inc. Clarke recommends resisting the temptation to introduce new devices or technologies without addressing a specific need to reduce the chance for overstimulation.
When you’ve identified your child’s specific needs, assistive technologies can make parenting on the spectrum a little easier, helping you create a safe and encouraging environment for your child to thrive in. These tools can allow your child to cope with their environment and help you manage the unique and sometimes difficult parenting demands that come with ASD, ensuring your child’s safety and security.
Few technologies are as accessible for children with autism than the suite of Apple devices, like the iPad, iTouch, and iPhone. A simple tool like an iPad can go a long way towards improving a child with ASD’s ability to understand inputs, like listening and reading, and to communicate through speaking and writing. User-friendly electronic devices respond predictably to inputs and commands, which can reduce frustration for a child with autism.
iPads and other Apple devices also offer a range of apps and learning tools that can help your child build meaningful skills for interacting with others and expressing themselves. An iPad can even provide an outlet for an overwhelmed child, allowing them to self-stimulate in a more calm and safe way than other behaviors like hand flapping, picking, or repetitive noises. Clarke recommends these devices as a “doorway” to expression and comprehension.
A primary challenge for parents of children with ASD is the constant fear of their child wandering off. The tendency for wandering, also called elopement, stems from an impaired sense of danger. Children with ASD are four times as likely to wander as their neurotypical siblings, and as many as 50% of children with autism between ages 4 and 10 wander off at some point.
Many GPS trackers can help prevent a wandering episode from having a negative outcome. These simple devices provide assurance that your child isn’t wandering into harm’s way. You can configure many of these devices with different “anchor points” that allow you to locate your child at home or at school. The technologies can work with your smartphone, and you can send alerts automatically to other caregivers and teachers during a wandering episode.
Home security devices—like door and window alarms, security cameras, and Wi-Fi connected locks—can increase independence for a child with autism. These devices provide around-the-clock protection against wandering while also providing additional notifications for smaller issues like a shower being left on or a window being left open.
With newer security systems, you can tailor your home security to your child’s specific needs. Extended protections for nonverbal or escape-prone children can aid in preventing worst-case scenarios. Security providers like Vivint even offer special programs for parents of children with ASD, helping to alleviate the stress caused to parents and children alike.
Roughly 20% to 30% of children with autism are unable to communicate verbally. This challenge can be a constant source of stress for your child if they’re unable to express themselves or communicate their needs. In these cases, assistive technologies provide alternative modes of communication as a gateway to self-expression, which can significantly increase your child’s overall quality of life.
Companies like Tobii Dynavox specialize in Augmentative and Assistive Communication (AAC) technologies, including touch-based speech generating devices, speech-generating keyboards, and software to go along with them. Online trainings and guides can teach you how to tailor these assistive technologies to the unique communication needs of your child while encouraging development and skill building over time.
Technology can be a double-edged sword for children with ASD. A careful introduction of these tools with opportunities for “unplugging” in a quiet, technology-free space can help your child adjust to using new tools without risking overstimulation. Clarke also reminds parents that these technologies are not a “miracle cure” for autism, and the limits of their effectiveness make it critically important to consider a child’s needs before choosing a new device. When appropriate, these technologies offer broad positive impacts for reducing your child’s stress and easing many parenting concerns.