Tech Safety Guide for Parents of Children With ASD
April 3, 2020
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one in 59 children in the United States have been identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Caregivers of these unique children face a host of challenges, and tech safety is one of those challenges. Technology can be helpful for children with autism, but it can also be harmful.
In 2015, U.S. Census data indicated 78% of households had a computer, and 75% had either a smartphone or handheld wireless device. Technology has grown as part of everyday life, and it can be advantageous for a child with autism. For example, technology may help facilitate social interactions that might otherwise be a challenge, and it is not uncommon for someone with ASD to be highly tech-savvy and even enjoy computer-based instruction.
Unfortunately, technology and computers can also be harmful to a child with ASD, such as feeding obsessive behaviors and triggering negative reactions. Parents of a child with ASD have to find a balance between what is beneficial and what could pose a hazard.
ASD behaviors and how they can affect technology usage
Some children with ASD behave, interact and communicate in ways that are different from other children. Learning and problem-solving abilities can vary from child to child; some individuals with ASD are gifted in certain areas, while others may have severe limitations. A typical range of symptoms associated with ASD are given below, along with how these behaviors can affect technology usage in both a positive and negative way.
Obsessive repetitive behavior
With technology, the tendency to perform obsessive, repetitive behaviors may mean repeatedly playing the same game, loading the same image or page or performing a computerized task over and over. Children who need repetitive sensory inputs as a means of dealing with stress can benefit from the rapid serve-up of responses the internet can provide. However, a rapid supply of imagery or actions can also feed repetitive behaviors, which could encourage addiction to certain games, images or visiting the same website over and over.
Difficulty engaging with people
ASD often presents specific social engagement challenges. For example, difficulty with processing verbal or non-verbal cues can make social interactions challenging to navigate in real life. In these cases, technology use can be beneficial, allowing channels for social interaction that are less stressful for the child. In fact, making online friends and experiencing social interactions in a controlled environment can even help to build the skills needed for real-life social situations. On the downside, making connections online does have its risks, due to the prevalence of online predators. Research also indicates individuals with a disability are 16% more likely to be cyberbullied, so safety measures need to be in place to ensure your child is having healthy online interactions.
Hyper-reactivity to sensory input
Technology may make it easier for a child with autism to experience situations and events that would normally lead to sensory overload, such as watching a sporting event on a tablet instead of live in a noisy stadium. However, it’s important to keep in mind that some websites and computer games produce flashing lights, loud sounds and other sensory outputs that could generate a negative reaction for some children with ASD.
Prone to anxiety and OCD
Children with excess anxiety may benefit from using technology to connect socially or to perform certain activities. Computer interaction can help reduce the discomfort a child may experience with face-to-face interactions. However, too much screen time can cause amygdala and serotonin changes, which may exacerbate feelings of anxiety, which is why setting limits for screen time is important.
Fragile attention system
Technology affords a wealth of teaching/learning programs for things like vocational assistance or video modeling. Using these types of tools can help keep a child focused in spite of attention deficits. The downfall is that too much screen time has the potential to fragment attention and possibly deplete the bandwidth a child has available for other tasks.
Sensory and motor integration issues
Some children with ASD experience challenges using motor skills to react to sensory inputs, such as sights or sounds. Some research suggests action-based games can boost sensorimotor skills and increase cognitive flexibility. However, screen time has also been scientifically linked to sensorimotor delays or lowered levels of sensory processing.
How technology helps with ASD
Certain types of technology can be helpful for children with ASD. Even though every child who has autism is different, technology can be just as diverse, which creates many opportunities for learning, growth and independence.
Helps combat stress
The lack of predictability in the physical world can be problematic for children with ASD because of sensory input or processing difficulties. Luckily, electronic devices and assistive technology are tools that offer predictability, which can be useful for children with ASD. Electronic devices have adjustable brightness and volume levels, and something like a tablet with a flat-glass surface may help a child with tactile sensitivities. Likewise, some assistive technologies (ATs) are specifically designed to cater to individuals with ASD, including screen readers and special keyboards. For instance, a simple app, like The Wheels on the Bus Musical app, which involves repetitive sounds, images or actions on a tablet or iPhone could offer an outlet for a child who is feeling overwhelmed with the physical world around them.
Helps with communication and social interaction
Children with autism often find communicating in person stressful. With the use of technology, communication is enhanced and much less stressful. Digital communication channels facilitate social interactions by allowing conversations to happen via text, or by using an assistive technology device designed to deliver automated verbal commands with the push of a button, or to translate text to speech.
Helps provide a beneficial learning platform
Children with autism learn in diverse ways. For example, a child with autism may be a highly visual learner, so visual imagery can be used to help them better understand concepts. Educational platforms online, computer activities and software, and even video games can offer a controllable and predictable learning environment that is more fitting for a child with autism. A controllable learning environment both encourages attention and helps lessen frustration associated with common mistakes, because they offer the ability for the child to work autonomously and can be configured to cater to specific senses, like sight or sound.
Jules Csillag, an NYC-based speech-language pathologist who specializes in special education and technology, told the Huffington Post that classrooms can be tricky for those with autism. Classrooms can have unspoken rules that are hard to understand, but communication and teaching technologies can help. She said, “Teachers are becoming more comfortable with technology. More and more, it is allowing them to customize a curriculum for students [with ASD].”
Technology that assists with everyday activities may help a child with autism grow to be more independent. For example, visual schedules can help the child learn how to follow a routine without outside instruction, or video modeling can be used to teach certain skills in imagery, such as brushing hair or putting on clothing.
Builds confidence levels
Technology can also provide a safe space for children with ASD. For example, in-person interactions can be stressful, background noise can feel threatening and lack of understanding of non-verbal cues can be frustrating. Online, children and teens with autism feel more confident in their communications because conversations are taking place in what is perceived as a safe space. This paired with the ability to do things independently may lead to a further boost in self-confidence levels.
Helps with problem-solving skills
Video game technology can force a player to utilize problem-solving skills. Where doing the same action repeatedly may not yield a positive outcome, determining a new way to achieve a task or win a game can translate into real-life problem-solving skills for someone with autism.
How technology can be harmful to children with ASD
It is imperative that parents of children with ASD become familiar with the risks involved with technology use in addition to the benefits. Here are some things to look out for:
Potential for sleep disturbances
Children with autism have a lack of melatonin, which regulates sleep patterns. In fact, up to 80% of children with ASD have sleep difficulties. Spending time staring at a screen can actually suppress melatonin production further, which can cause sleep disturbances.
Social skills impairment
Even though social interactions can happen online, pertinent components of in-person social interaction are lacking when relying on technology for communication, such as making eye contact and getting familiar with body language. Too much screen time can hinder these types of social skill developments further for a child with autism.
Increased anxiety and screen time addiction
Autism and anxiety disorders often coexist. Although the use of technology can often reduce anxiety in children with autism, too much screen time is known to be problematic for all children. For example, there’s a heightened risk of both anxiety and depression for all children when there are high levels of screen time, but those with autism may be more at risk than others because they are more prone to anxiety and more likely to have obsessive-compulsive traits. In fact, children with autism have a greater risk of developing a social media addiction, and internet dependency may be more prevalent, because they can be more attracted to the comfort and stimulation of using a computerized device.
Cyberbullying and exposure to unsafe people
Online exposure to bullies or people with ill intent is a major risk for children or teens with autism who may be easier tricked into doing something they shouldn’t because of missed social cues or an inability to communicate. They may also be duped into believing they are talking to a “friend” when they are actually talking to a predator.
Cyberbullying can have even more negative implications for a child with autism than usual. Mark Atkinson, the Director of Policy at Ambitious About Autism stated on the organization’s website, “Such a negative experience [like cyberbullying] can be distressing and disorientating for a young person with autism and learning disabilities, especially as it may take longer for them to understand what’s happening and to tell their families.”
It is also important for parents to monitor their child’s online activities to prevent their private information from being exposed.
Technology and ASD best practices
Since technology and computer use can be such a benefit for children with ASD, it shouldn’t be eliminated altogether to avoid the risks. Instead, it is best to use technology with best practices in mind and to develop a set of guidelines.
- Set limits for internet usage. Compulsive internet usage may be more prevalent among people with ASD, so it is best to set a predetermined time allowance for screen time. For example, limit time spent online by using a timer or make technology available only at certain times during the daily routine.
- Create ground rules for device usage. Ground rules for internet usage are important for all children, including those with ASD. The rules should be short and succinct, but children should know if they deviate from these rules they may lose their online privileges temporarily. For example, some rules might be: no communicating with strangers on social media or only specific websites are allowed.
- Monitor and talk about online time. Monitoring the child while online is important, so check in frequently and check usage history on a regular basis. Beyond this, it is important to openly communicate about time spent online with the child. An interrogation is not going to go well, so just bring up a discussion about what the child or teen did while online, what they learned or who they talked to.
- Block websites that may have addictive or inappropriate content. The internet is rife with sites that can be especially addictive in nature, such as gambling or pornographic websites. A child with ASD should especially be protected from exposure to this kind of content. Utilize internet safe search settings and third-party parental control software to prohibit access to these websites. Further, some of the best internet providers can help you filter unsafe websites through your router. Talk to your child about the dangers of this kind of content and teach them to alert you if another child is encouraging them to access the content on unprotected devices.
- Use technology as a supplement for in-person social interaction. Technology offers a lot of social opportunities, but it should never be all of the social interaction a child with ASD gets. You can encourage real-life social interaction by requiring certain games online to be played with siblings in-person, or restricting gaming time to only instances when there is no one around to play with.
Assistive technology for ASD
Assistive technology is defined as a piece of equipment or system that can be used to alleviate challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. Assistive technology can come in a lot of forms, from everyday items like specially designed doorknobs and mobility items to devices that translate text into speech.
Assistive technologies for people with ASD are incredibly valuable, and can help individuals navigate various challenges related to communication, social skills and daily living.
Assistive tech for ASD can provide both augmentative and alternative communication resources to promote independence. Speech-generating devices like GoTalks have a synthesized speech system that is activated with the touch of a button. Basic voice commands can be synthesized by pushing a button. In addition to standalone devices, several helpful apps are available that can be added to standard smartphones and tablets. I Can Have Conversations with You! and Proloquo2Go are two examples that use alternative communication methods to build communication skills.
Interactive software, apps and games are available for nurturing stronger social skills. For example, You Are a Social Detective! is interactive software designed to help children with ASD understand social behavior and proper etiquette in social settings. Another example, Meet Heckerty, is a free downloadable app-style game that teaches ideas like caring and loyalty.
There are also apps and games available that promote life skills development. For example, Life Skills Winner is an application available online and on smartphones or mobile devices. People with ASD can use the app to score points when learning how to achieve certain daily living activities. Choiceworks is another app example, which helps children complete daily tasks and helps them understand their feelings. Apps like these can help with tasks like staying on a schedule or breaking down daily living activities into easy-to-follow steps.
AbleData is an excellent resource to find assistive technology products for a range of challenges faced by people with autism.
Technology, when used safely and with limits, can enhance the lives of children with autism spectrum disorder. The right programs and devices can help with learning, skills development and more. However, there are many downsides that parents must be conscious of so they can create a plan for technology use that benefits their child with as little risk as possible. With proper usage rules in place, consistent monitoring and a bit of insight, children with ASD can reap the full advantages of technology and stay safe.
Sheena Harris is a freelance writer with 10 years of experience working with clients in the mental health field. She has worked hand-in-hand with some of the biggest care providers in the autism community to create informational content for parents, teachers and other caregivers of children with ASD.
Disclaimer: This Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.