World Autism Awareness Day: Assistive Technologies

Today, April 2nd, is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD)! The goal of WAAD is to raise public awareness and acceptance of people with ASD, and to promote research and treatment measures. The initiative to have an international day of autism came from the UN representative of Qatar, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, and it was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2007. Since 2012, every year WAAD has a theme – this year it’s “Assistive Technologies, Active Participation”.

Assistive technology (AT) refers to devices, equipment, or systems that help people with different disabilities with learning, working, and everyday life. Nowadays many children grow up surrounded by gadgets become tech savvy early on. Computers, smartphones, and tablets can be purposed as ATs. Here are 3 examples of simple TAs for everyday life, and if you know others please let me know in the comments.

Mainstream technologies can be purposed to serve as AT. Personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa can be easily integrated in daily life, for example to set timers for activities, set reminders for tasks and events, lay out the daily schedule and routines,  answer various questions and even tell jokes. I use the schedule and reminder functions most, because they help me navigate through the day and give me a sense of control, by sequencing tasks, estimating how long an activity would take, and checking my to-dos. Moreover, with Alexa I get to hone my German and English pronunciation (both foreign languages to me), because the commands need to be pronounced clearly in order to be processed, so it can also be used to some extent in speech training.

Another AT comes from the Autism Glass Project, who created a facial recognition system for Google Glass that delivers real-time social cues, such as the amount and type of eye contact. In a test, the  autistic children who wore the glasses as AT showed improved eye contact and ability to recognize and interpret emotions. 

Tablets can be used for various activities and there are already many autism-related apps and games on the market for specific skills, for example creating your lunch menu, following routines with a visual calendar, or learning social skills with stories. Puzzle Piece offers a 7″ Amazon Fire Tablet preloaded with over 120 autism apps, with new apps loaded every month. Through Social Story apps children can learn to navigate life situations from various domains, from basic needs and school duties to relationships and entertainment.

With all these gadgets out there, it can be overwhelming to choose the right AT and costly to invest in many of them. It’s important to keep in mind that these are not universal solutions, an AT that works for a person may not work for another. Also, there is not “the one device” that can solve all problems. Start by acknowledging the specific needs of the person with ASD and research a bit the products to see to what extent they could help them. Simply buying an iPad won’t be effective if you only use it for watching YouTube and scrolling through news feed.

I think the application of tech in social care is of great worth and, judging by the speed of development, more helpful ATs will be launched in the near future.

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