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Autism and Assistive Technology 1: What is the Role for Assistive Technology in the lives of People with Autism

Over the weekend I attended the ASPIRE conference, hosted by Trinity College in Dublin, where one of the main topics of discussion was seeking to challenge the current debate as to how the diagnosis of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome would be classified in the revision of DSM- 5.  During this conference as well, there was some really interesting work presented by some of the staff from the School of Education at Trinity College on some studies of the use of educational drama in addressing some of the social skills and developmental difficulties faced by children with a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  One of the most interesting observations for me as I sat back to take a broader view of the proceeding, was just how engaged people were.  In a packed lecture theater in College, there were very few quiet voices and as the day went on and you would expect energies to flag, there were still a lot of questions a lot of debate.  It was also great to see that not everyone was in agreement with every speaker.  Often at such events, my experience has been that during questions and answers audiences fall into two categories, people who fall over themselves with praise or people who insist on making their own particular counter point to whatever it is you are presenting!  This however, was one of the most balanced audiences that I have seen in quite a while, and there was a ‘maturity’ to the discussion that, I think reflects a group that is united in purpose as audiences that are made up by parents and teachers often can be.

In any case, one of the stand out moments of some of the conference debate was when Dr Carmel O’Sullivan when answering a question about using Drama with children diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome mentioned that for the children she worked with “drama was just good teaching”! 

This statement made me think about technology and how we use technology for children with Autism and I just wondered if it is used well and correctly, “is technology just good teaching”?

As different presenters during the course of the conference spoke about why it can be so difficult to reach consensus on classifying Autism and Asperger’s syndrome I thought about how varied the application and use of Assistive Technology is for such children.  In particular it struck me how varied a role technology plays for such children, providing organization in the way of mind mapping software, focusing on pre-language skill development with early learning software, alternative and augmentative communication solutions for children who are non verbal or are having issues with communication right the way through using a computer as a comfortable “place” to go and spend time.  Some of the debate regarding how to classify Autism, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome etc., to me mirrored some of the issues I have in coherently classifying what role technology plays for children “classified” with such difficulties.  Out traditional definition of Assistive Technology suggests that Assistive Technology is any product or service designed to enable independence for disabled and older people.  Is that the role of technology for children with Autism?

I think the answer is – sometimes, but in my opinion it does not go far enough in describing the “spectrum” of application it can have. I notice recently that Wikipedia have started to provide the following definition for AT;

Assistive Technology is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities and also includes the process used in selecting, locating, and using them.

One of my colleagues Aejaz Zahid; recently returned from the AAATE Conference where there was some debate as to defining what we mean by Assistive Technology in a world where technology is more pervasive and by its nature enables us as people.  The debate about what exactly Assistive Technology is can be more profound when we try and apply it in a new language, in a new culture where the concept of using technology as an agent to change lives is not just recent but emerging.  Over the past three years at Mada we’ve not only tried to bring Assistive Technology to People with a Disability in Qatar, we’ve also attempted to bring the concept of Assistive Technology to a new context and domain.  The novelty of Assistive Technology as a concept forces us to confront questions like, what is it, what does it do, what way does it benefit people?

Forcing ourselves continuously to define what we do as professionals in this field is challenging, particularly so when we have complicating factors such as language to deal with.  We should however not be afraid to be challenged, or to have to articulate what we do or what we strive to do with technology.  More importantly, we should always be searching to describe what it is technology does for people with a disability.

So, is technology for people with Autism just “good teaching”?  Or is it more?  If so, can we all articulate clearly what technology means for children with Autism? As the debate rages about how to classify the diagnosis of Autism and its related conditions, we should take some time to think, reflect and debate what the “Spectrum of Technology for Autism” means.

This blog is the first of what I would hope will be a series of discussions and debates about the nature of Assistive Technology and its use by and for People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.  Please feel free to enter the debate, share this article and comment below.


Bryan Boyle, November 2013.