May 21, 2013 by Joseph DuLaney
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tech tools for studentsAn increase in the incidence of autism is changing the landscape of our classrooms and challenging our knowledge of how best to educate all students. Fortunately, recent technology is providing some ways to help - a cast of characters including robot teachers and video games is helping unravel the mystery of how best to reach students with autism.

At the most basic level, autism is defined as a childhood-onset developmental disorder. Deficits can include social reciprocity, communication, over-focused interests, and repetitive behaviors, and can occur at differing levels of severity. The social reciprocity and communication challenges lay the foundation for what can become a challenging school environment for some.

Robots Teachers

Some schools have started using tech tools in creative ways to break down the communication barriers with students with autism. In Birmingham, England, a program in which students with autism learn from robot teachershas shown promise. The instructors and researchers believe the robot teachers are less threatening than human teachers—possibly due to the robots’ lack of emotion and much smaller size. Whatever the reason, students are showing a desire to  connect with the robots, and once that connection has been developed, learning in different forms can begin to take place.

Video Game Technology

The use of video games with autistic learnersis also gaining traction, reaching students on their own terms via a fun and familiar technology. Researchers have found that video games create an environment that is less threatening than the real world—much like robots—and one that is more predictable, allowing the students to feel more at ease. As a result, breakthroughs can sometimes be made more quickly with video games, as in the case of a student who finally moved his arms up and down together while playing XBOX—after a therapist had worked with him on the movement for months without success.

Video games enable the delivery of educational content—from math and language arts instruction to behavioral modeling and physical coordination exercises—while keeping students engaged, a combination that can be harder to achieve with more traditional methods of instruction.

The Way Forward

These two applications of technology in the classroom are paving the way for additional research into how our education systems can better interact with students on the autism spectrum. Robots and video games are most definitely not the full answer, but if they give us a glimpse into a solution, then they are a great start. 

There are a lot of questions still to explore, but like a mystery novel with an unknown ending, we must follow the clues and solve the riddles to open our eyes.

Related reading:

Video Games: A New Perspective on Learning Content and Skills

Improving Auditory Processing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder