How can we improve support for autistic people?
Ahead of World’s Autism Day tomorrow, in this post Mark Brosnan from the University of Bath discusses some of the challenges and solutions for parents and carers of autistic people, and shares more about the course Smart-ASD: Matching Autistic People with Technology Resources.
Over the last few decades awareness of autism has grown. Last week was World Autism Awareness Week, which marked the start of World Autism Month (including Autism Speaks’ Light it up blue campaign) and even Sesame Street is getting involved in raising awareness of autism through its new character, Julia.
Awareness campaigns are excellent, but more needs to be done to provide the practical steps to help individuals, families and us as a society respond to the needs of autistic people. Aside from the challenge autism presents for individuals and families, health economists have estimated the cost of supporting people with autism to be £32 billion per year in the UK and $175 billion per year in the USA. This is greater than the costs of cancer, stroke and heart disease combined.
This is where our course can help – it aims to provide practical suggestions and suggestions to help people living with autism. It’s been designed with international partners through our new Centre for Applied Autism Research at the University of Bath to highlight how technology can best be used, specifically mobile apps, including the free SMART-ASD app – that helps assess the needs of autistic children and identifies the most suitable technology to assist individuals’ requirements.
What is autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by atypical social communication and behavioural inflexibility. Autistic people can have difficulties socially interacting with other people and have a preference for predictability, routine and sameness. Around 1% of the population receive a diagnosis of ASD, the majority of whom are male.
How can technology support autistic people?
Digital technologies provide an environment within which autistic people can thrive. Computers are (mostly) highly predictable and can provide employment opportunities that depend upon routine and sameness, for which autistic people can be ideally suited. Computers can also mediate social communication, providing platforms to socially interact with other people without being face-to-face. It has been argued that autistic people can have an affinity for using digital technology.
Digital technologies are being developed to build upon a digital affinity to provide therapeutic benefit for autistic people. For example, the Autism Speaks web site lists hundreds upon hundreds of apps that are available to support autistic people. It seems unlikely that one app would support every autistic person, so the issue becomes how to decide what individual technology will best support the autistic individual.
The autistic individual may have movement difficulties that make precise interaction with a touch screen challenging, or they may have intellectual disabilities that would make reading instructions problematic. Many autistic people have associated conditions such as intellectual disability, so the wide range of digital technology available should be able to address the wide range of autistic people’s wants and needs.
But there are two key issues – how do you identify the most appropriate technology for each individual and what is the evidence that the technology provides any therapeutic or learning benefit? Using robust evidence (evidence-based practice) to inform your decisions requires a level of evidence that does not exist for the vast majority of digital technology.
The first step is to better understand what information is available. Understanding what autism is, the impact of associated conditions such as intellectual disability, and what technologies and accessories are potentially available is essential. An obvious example might be touchscreen technologies and thinking about screen protectors and cases if a tablet is likely to be dropped or thrown.
On the course we’ll consider issues like these and more, working together to help improve the lives of those with autism.