Over the past year, children have shifted to learning, engaging and social networking in a remote and virtual world. As a result, the use of technology and devices among all age groups is at an all-time high, including children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is an umbrella term which includes diagnoses like autism, Asperger’s syndrome (AS) and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs).
In the U.S., it is estimated that 1 in 54 children, from all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, has been identified with ASD. However, while all children need guidance with safe and healthy technology use, children with ASD may experience different challenges and benefits unique to them. So, how can we better support children with ASD as they engage with technology?
Our 20th episode of the Managing Family Life Online Series helps raise awareness about autism and provide helpful advice from guest experts for parents raising kids with ASD. In this episode, I sat down with experts Dr. Lisa Prock and Dr. Michael Rich from the Children’s Hospital in Boston to learn more about supporting safe and healthy technology use for children and individuals with ASD.
Individuals with ASD often have language communication challenges, and doctors often recommend what is called total communication for younger children. Total communication includes sign language, spoken language, visual schedules and pictures. This is where technology comes in: many children with ASD are introduced to devices, like iPads, to learn and communicate much earlier than other children. Technology is something doctors proactively use with ASD children, but, because of their limited social interaction and tendency towards repetitive behavior in games and activities on devices, autistic children often need restrictions when using apps, games and devices.
On the flip side, technology also presents great benefits to children on the autism spectrum; it can help them concentrate better and go deeper on an action or topic than a neurotypical child might under the same conditions. Technology can be incredibly helpful to some autistic kids for communicating with others.
For parents that are thinking about how to introduce smart devices into your autistic child’s life for the first time, you are not alone. There are a multitude of resources available to help (I’ve included a few at the end of this blog). Dr. Prock and Dr. Rich shared a few key considerations to keep in mind:
- Devices are like power tools: Just as you wouldn’t hand over car keys or an electric drill to a child without instruction, you don’t want to do that with a smart phone or a tablet, either. Children need guidelines and structure around when and how they should use smart devices. Sit down with your child and teach them to master their device and not to be afraid of it.
- Technology is a social networking tool: It provides opportunities for children to socially interact, which is especially critical for children on the autism spectrum who have greater challenges communicating in-person. Spend some time understanding how social networking works, how to protect privacy and security, and what the rules are when engaging with others on it. This will help you better prepare to guide your children to use it in a safe and healthy manner.
- Be conscious of your own screen use, too: Your screen time use is a model for your children to follow. Be aware of how, when, where, and why you are using technology, especially in front of your children. When your children are ready to use devices for the first time, sit down with them and teach them how to use it, while providing an example of how you use screens yourself.
- When screen time is up, create a transition: Limiting screen time is important, but all children, and especially ASD children, need a transition when screen time is up. Instead of just transitioning off from screen time, try transitioning to something else (like an outside activity). Have your transitions be part of something new, or be the beginning of something, versus the end of something. Shift from taking a ‘policing mode’ to an attitude of supporting their success in multiple activities.
Dr. Prock and Dr. Rich also shared that over the past year, they have seen many benefits of technology use for children with ASD. One positive they noted is that in the largely remote learning environments, children are looking forward to turning away from screens at the end of the school day in favor of other activities such as going outside and playing. According to Dr. Rich, this is a stark shift in what he was seeing pre-COVID-19, where children might hurry to go directly to their video games and other devices when getting home from school.
Dr. Prock also shared positives that she has observed: “For some of my patients, their capacity to engage via Zoom has really blossomed,” she noted. In addition, Dr. Prock shared that patients with challenges interacting socially have rather enjoyed not having to go to a physical school setting. “They can plug into Zoom and really learn,” she shared. She also noted that the text and chat functions on smart devices have proven to help children with ASD communicate better with others.
When I asked them about their hopes of advances in technology to support children with autism, both Dr. Prock and Dr. Rich shared the need for technology that could read an individual’s emotions and mirror it back in a way that could help children with ASD understand how they and those around them are feeling. Children with autism often lack the capacity to do this on their own. Drs. Prock and Rich also believe augmented reality (AR) has great potential to assist individuals with autism in understanding and better comprehending the meanings behind people’s tone of voice or facial expressions.
Technology is here to stay, and we all need to learn to navigate this shift to a digital world. It is equally important that we teach our children that there is neurodiversity among us, a fact which should be better understood, celebrated and respected by all.
For more resources on supporting children with ASD, please visit:
- Autism Spectrum Center, Children’s Hospital Boston
- Digital Wellness Lab – A Global Resource for Families, Educators and Clinicians
To hear the full conversation and for more information about our webinar series, please visit https://internetsafety.trendmicro.com/webinars.