Autistic Kids Use Tech for Social Learning

Autistic Kids Use Tech for Social Learning

Children with autism spectrum disorders enjoy screen time, underscoring an opportunity to use interactive devices to encourage social learning.

According to the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 conducted by Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., children on the autism spectrum are twice as likely to spend lots of time in front of a screen as typically developing kids, and prefer to spend the bulk of their free time watching television or videos instead of engaging in social media. The study includes more than 1,000 13-16 year olds in special education programs.

Despite how much children who have autism enjoy the stimulation of a computer or mobile device, few engage in social media pursuits, such as emailing or chatting, researchers found. Nearly 90 percent of the children studied spend little time interacting with others or engaging in social media activities online, and more than half of them don’t do it at all.

The researchers’ results are somewhat expected, considering difficulty understanding social rules, trouble communicating, and lack of interaction with others are hallmarks of many disorders across the autism spectrum.

However, they also highlight a chance for parents, therapists and educators to capitalize on the pleasure many autistic children get out of sitting in front of a screen, and find ways to encourage more interactive, social activities.

Smartphones and tablets such as Apple’s iPad especially suit this aim. The portability of mobile devices means then can go wherever needed, whether at home, in a classroom or in a therapy center. They also connect seamlessly to video chatting services, e-mail applications, and social media sites, providing opportunities for interaction for children who could find in-person encounters particularly difficult.

Plus, the super-sensitive touch screens on today’s tablets and phones could help engage children who might find the world of touch and stimulation overwhelming, helping them develop fine motor and sensory skills as they refine social abilities.

Research shows the same features that make smartphones and tablets interactive, such as multi-touch technology, can double as therapy devices for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, transforming mobile devices from simple vehicles for entertainment to valuable tools for rehabilitation and learning.

A wide variety of social games and apps, several with an educational bent, also allow children with AMDs to socialize and play with others in a non-threatening, fun way, maximizing their screen time as a learning tool and not just a passive, solo activity.

The researchers acknowledge that as children with autism age, they spend more time e-mailing, chatting, and interacting on computers and devices, finding it more enticing as their social skills develop. The increasing availability of tablets and smartphones and a wide range of apps and games to encourage interactivity and fun could help children with AMDs get more out of their screen time.

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