For teens with autism, tablets could be a game changer

"The social acceptability of cell phone or tablet interventions for students with autism could lessen the stigma they face—and contribute to transformative outcomes after high school," says Kara Hume. (Credit: thebarrowboy/Flickr)

Visual technology, such as tablets and phones, could help teens with autism develop the skills they need to live independently after high school, experts say.

“We explored many factors that contribute to the poor outcomes people with autism often experience,” says Kara Hume, who is a researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It’s clear that teaching independence to students with autism should be a central focus of their activities in high school.”


Independence is the biggest indicator of which students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are likely to live on their own, have a job, and participate in their communities after high school.

“However, adolescents with ASD have trouble observing their peers and picking up on skills important for developing independence,” says Hume, co-principal investigator of the study published in Remedial and Special Education.

Students with ASD experience difficulties with communication that inhibit their ability to ask questions and express preferences, and many have trouble dealing with new situations. This resistance to change can create problems when teachers and caregivers try to reduce their roles.

“When an adolescent with ASD has a pen that runs out of ink, that student may be more likely to wait for prompting from the teacher before asking for a new pen or just finding a new one,” she says.

It isn’t easy to change this default setting from reliance on others to independent action. Although adolescence is usually a time of increasing autonomy, research shows that the independence of young adults with ASD begins to plateau and then decline.

Visual thinking

Other scientists have demonstrated that many high schoolers with ASD possess unique skills that teachers and caregivers can emphasize in order to teach independence.

“Brain imaging studies and research on visual tasks show that many people with autism have enhanced mental imagery and superior visual thinking, compared to typically developing people,” Hume says. People with ASD also describe their own reasoning as a series of images.

“For high schoolers with autism, the old adage really is true,” she says. “A picture really is worth a thousand words.”

Researchers screened 29,000 articles to determine the most reliable interventions for children and youth with ASD and found 12 evidence-based practices for high-school-aged students, some of which have a strong visual emphasis.

Visual technology

“Visual schedules, for instance, allow students with ASD to act independently, because they don’t involve verbal prompting from teachers,” Hume says. “Visual information that explains what to do also can be useful in home, school, and employment settings, because it eliminates the need for continual monitoring and support.”

Video modeling might also prove useful for high school students with ASD. Prompting from teachers can be edited out over time as students become accustomed to behaving independently.

Newer technology also has the potential to capitalize on the visual strengths of people with ASD, Hume says.

“iPads and iPhones are everywhere for typically developing teens. The social acceptability of cell phone or tablet interventions for students with autism could lessen the stigma they face—and contribute to transformative outcomes after high school.”

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill