Exploring Emotions: Social Tools and the Autism Spectrum

INDATA autism trainingEvery year, INDATA hosts four full-day training sessions that take people from all walks of life inside the intricate, ever-expanding world of assistive technology.

“These training days open the door to all kinds of important discussions and discoveries,” said Brian Norton, Director of Assistive Technology at Easterseals Crossroads.

This year’s slate of sessions concluded at the end of August with an exploration of assistive technology for people on the autism spectrum.

 

An Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorder
Ashley McGinn, Ph.D., HSPP, Psychologist, at Easterseals Crossroads, delivered the first presentation of the day — an in-depth introduction to autism.

man and boy with autismAs defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), autism refers to “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

Autism is called a spectrum disorder due to the wide range of symptoms associated with it. People on the spectrum may avoid eye contact, not respond to their name, have difficulty following simple commands and act as though they are in “their own world.” These are just a few of the tell-tale signs.

Individuals with autism also commonly repeat words or phrases over and over — a symptom known as echolalia. Many others are unable to develop effective spoken language and rely upon different methods of communicating.

 

Augmentative Alternative Communication
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), more than two million people in the United States have a severe communication disorder that impairs their ability to speak. And only five percent of these people have an augmentative alternative communication (AAC) device.

“AAC is not a pill that is taken; it is not an app that is downloaded; it is not a device that’s been delivered. It is a practice and a process,” said David Moffatt, the President and CEO of the Prentke Romich Company, a global leader in the development of assistive technology.

boy with autismThe process of choosing the right form of AAC should ideally be a team effort involving the individual in need and their caregivers, teachers and therapists. Among other things, it’s important to consider the physical limitations that may create a barrier between the user and the device — such as lack of motor limb movement for manipulating it.

However, many accommodations are available to break these barriers, including switches, typing splints, mouth sticks and eye gaze technology, which allows users to operate machinery using eye movements.

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is commonly used as a communication aid for individuals on the autism spectrum. Developed in 1985 and initially implemented in the Delaware Autistic Program, this system teaches individuals to communicate requests using picture cards, eventually showing them how to construct simple sentences based on those images.

aac deviceNow there is a vast variety of smartphone and tablet apps available to help people of all ages communicate through images and text-to-speech. Some of the popular ones include AAC Autism Talk Now, Let Me Talk, Sounding Board and Touch Chat, to name just a few.

The Prentke Romich Company states the four keys to finding success with an AAC device are to “keep it handy, keep it fun, keep it interesting and keep it up.”

Again, using these devices is a matter of “practice and process.”

 

Visual Modeling
As the training session showed throughout the day, people with autism prefer visual stimuli. In fact, most of us do — 65 percent of the planet’s population is made up of visual learners, according to the Social Science Research Network.

girl with autism using technology

Video modeling is a common tool for individuals with autism. This is an observational learning technique in which the individual learns desired behaviors by watching video demonstrations and then imitating the actions shown in them. These demonstrations include simple daily activities, such as washing dishes.

Point-of-view video modeling is the most immersive form, creating a virtual reality for the user by recording activities as they would look through the person’s eyes. Only hands and objects are seen in these videos.

The sky is the limit with learning through video modeling — anything that can be filmed can be taught. It helps with teaching appropriate behaviors, communication, daily living tasks and job skills.

Best of all, it allows individuals with autism to learn in a solitary way and avoid lessons that involve person-to-person interaction, which commonly causes them stress and anxiety.

 

The Role of Technology in Improving Social Cognition
The last presentation of the day brought the discussion back full circle to the major challenge people with autism face — interacting with others.

Michelle Garcia-Winner, the founder of the organization Social Thinking, defines social skills as “the ability to share space with others effectively and adapt your behavior to meet their expectations.”

two boys with autism

One of the main signs of autism is behavior that doesn’t match common societal expectations, such as individuals tuning others out or lacking a “social smile.” Individuals with autism often have difficulty understanding and expressing emotion.

Led by Brooke Bastin, a licensed clinical therapist at Easterseals Crossroads, the presentation showed how technology is providing vital social and emotional training, giving individuals tools in cyberspace they can take into the real world.

boy with autism playing

For example, the “Zones of Regulation: Exploring Emotions” app allows users to live vicariously through an avatar in a world that mirrors our own. It places them in simulated environments — a classroom, cafeteria or park — and takes them through social situations in which they can try to identify and express their emotions.

It’s essentially a trial run for real life.

Of course, at the end of the day, the best resource we have is each other. As Bastin noted in the conclusion of the training day’s last presentation, “Technology matters as it is part of our social world, but there are still parts of social development that require human modeling, human contact and human interaction.”