How can we unlock the potential of pupils with autism?

Studies have shown that people with autism can be invaluable coders and programmers and yet they are often left behind in the job market. Can edtech in schools help their prospects?

A survey released in February 2021 by the Office for National Statistics revealed that only 22% of autistic adults were in any kind of employment. Meanwhile, a previous study by the National Autistic Society stated that 77% of adults with autism wanted to be at work.

Against the backdrop of this discrepancy, research has consistently shown that autistic people have an aptitude for coding and programming. Autistic people are typically left-brained, meaning that they are analytical and methodical in their thinking, and respond well to tasks that involve sequences and predictability.

This phenomenon has been recognised by various organisations in the corporate sector and beyond. One example is financial services giant JP Morgan. In 2016 the company deliberately sourced employees and interns from people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The head of the firm’s Autism at Work programme, Anthon Pacilio concluded that those with ASD “considerably outperformed” neurotypical people.

While there are several hurdles faced by autistic people in entering the job market (among them sensitivity to change of environment, including lighting and sound and time needed to process information), vacancies in the digital sector have increased by 33% since April 2020, so it stands to reason that there is room for more autistic people to enter the job market.

Edtech’s role in schools

So, it would seem like an obvious step to make sure that edtech is used in schools for the benefit of pupils with neurodiverse and neurotypical pupils alike.

A recent report by Sheffield Hallam University, authored by Dr Jill Pluquailec, a senior lecturer in autism, and Gill O’Connor, an autistic researcher, concluded that compulsory education must create more flexible ways for autistic students to engage with school, offering them greater autonomy and options for home learning.

This report does not specifically mention edtech but plenty of studies have. Indeed, studies from nearly half a century ago have made a link between technology and ‘autism intervention’ and the research, focusing on the 6 to 12 age range, has grown substantially since.

One large-scale initiative is ECHOES run by UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. A technology-enhanced learning (TEL) environment for children between five and seven, ECHOES monitors how the children “explore and practise skills needed for successful social interaction, such as sharing of attention with others, turn-taking, initiating and responding to bids for interaction.”

“Technology seems to work very effectively for many autistic individuals,” says Dr Lila Kossyvaki, Assistant Professor in Severe Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities at Birmingham University’s School of Education.

“It offers an organised and structured environment which research has shown can be very conducive to learning for autistic pupils. In technology, there is no need for use of language to communicate and social interactions, areas which autistic individuals tend to have difficulties in.”

Technology can help break down tasks into smaller steps, something which, as Dr Kossyvaki says, “is likely to help all pupils struggling with a specific task including the autistic pupils.”

“The content of tasks can be selected according to an individual’s cognitive and language abilities,” continues Dr Kossyvaki, “as well as their interests and preferences, which makes the tasks more appropriate but also interesting for all children and, as a result, it is more likely for them to succeed.”

In this way, edtech can be used to support autistic pupils to develop or master a range of skills such as social communication and interaction (e.g., initiating communication, developing and maintaining friendships and developing empathy), academic skills (e.g., literacy, numeracy, reasoning and attention) and life skills (e.g., independence, transitioning, money and leisure time management and reducing stress levels).

How can we unlock the potential of pupils with autism?
How can we unlock the potential of pupils with autism?

Case study of an edtech initiative in action: CPAT

Last year an experiment involving CPAT – Computerised Progressive Attentional Training – showed that attention training can help young people with autism improve their academic performance.

The experiment was a joint venture between researchers at the University of Birmingham and an ASD Reference Unit in Sao Paolo, Brazil. 26 autistic children between the ages of eight and 14 participated. Half were given ordinary computer games to play while the other half took part in the CPAT programme, which includes training games targeting different types of attention, and at progressively more difficult levels.

Describing the results, a release from the University of Birmingham stated that: ‘Immediately after completing the training the CPAT group showed improvements in the number of isolated words they could correctly identify and read in 10 minutes (an increase from around 44 to around 53). They were also able to increase the number of words they could copy from around 18 to around 25. In maths, the CPAT group improved their scores by more than 50 per cent. All these improvements were maintained when the children were re-tested three months after completing the programme.

‘In contrast, the control group participants showed no evidence of improvement in any of the three areas.’

CPAT is part of the university’s Teacher Training and Attention in Autism (TTAA) project, funded by Erasmus+. It has partners in Greece, Spain, Israel and the UK, across which local pilots are taking place.

Dr Carmel Mevorach, lead researcher in the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health said: “We’ve found that by giving teachers the freedom to experiment with CPAT we are finding out much more about its potential benefits. Autism is highly individual, so developing an intervention that can be tuned to a particular individual or setting is really key to success.”

While there is some evidence pointing to the benefits of using edtech for young people with autism, this is counterbalanced by evidence that it can isolate children
– Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics (LSE)

The range of edtech support

This year, a pilot Assistive Technology Training pilot project was announced by the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen), a charitable organisation promoting the support of children and young people with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability). Teaming up with Assistive Technology company, Microlink, the pilot seeks to further expand the uptake of technology to support young people with SEND and learning differences.

In terms of autism, Assistive Technology (AT) ranges from low to mid to high tech and includes everything from picture boards to apps to robots for communication and learning.

Another example of AT is Microsoft’s Reading Progress tool in Microsoft Teams. Jennifer King, Executive Industry Advisor (Education) at Microsoft describes the tool as providing “a non-stigmatising opportunity for students to practice and improve their reading skills where students can read passages while recording the video and audio of the text. In Insights, teachers can then access related data on individual students as well as the whole class to analyse reading successes and difficulties.”

These kinds of approaches very much open the channels for learning. Meanwhile, Grant Smith, VP of Education of kids coding specialist Code Ninjas, gives a few examples of more vocational activities:

  • Building and interacting with robots

“As schools around the globe search for more impactful ways to better teach science, technology, engineering, and math to students, many teachers are finding that robots can help teach STEM concepts to children with autism because of their physical nature and reliable behaviour.”

  • Coding programmes like Microsoft MakeCode Arcade

“This allows children with ASD to explore different programming concepts as they create various games – including Shark Attack, Save the Forest, and Space Adventure – using a block-based programming language called Blockly. Concepts include variables, loops, functions, animation, physics, and collision detection – the formulaic approach is perfect for children with ASD.”

Minecraft: Education Edition is a perennial favourite, of course. It has speech-to-text chat functionality, allowing those with reading and writing challenges to participate at their own pace, and King describes the game as “a safe way for learners to engage socially and a popular and engaging environment to interact with curriculum content that does not require traditional classroom engagement.”

“The game dynamic of signs that relay information is like the way we use vocabulary on real-world objects to teach language in early-childhood and language-challenged classrooms,” says King. “Players are not just conversing for the sake of it but to successfully complete their in-game projects. That is huge for these students.”

It is clear that edtech has huge potential for children and young people with autism to learn but much more research is needed in this area if these opportunities are to be realised
– Dr Sue Cranmer, Lancaster University

The barriers to edtech adoption

Despite the width of support that edtech either offers or can potentially offer pupils and young people with autism, there are a number of limitations to take into account. Resources, of course, top the list.

“Edtech can only be impactful in schools if there are the resources to make the most of the opportunities,” says Smith.

He cites a survey by the Sutton Trust that found that 32% of primary school leaders were reducing investment in information technology equipment because of financial constraints. In secondary schools, the figure is 20%.

“This is mirrored by the fact that only 2% of teachers from disadvantaged schools say their pupils have adequate digital access [from a survey by Teach First]. The danger is that children with autism may not be able to get access to the resources they need to flourish in the subject.”

Even before the tech reaches the classroom, there are a huge number of development hurdles that the tech has to overcome.

“For researchers to recommend a piece of technology to use in autism as evidence-based practice (i.e., practice which is based on rigorous and systematic scientific research),” says Dr Kossyvaki, “this needs to have been found effective with many participants and in numerous studies which have been conducted by researchers who are independent to the intervention programme used.”

Dr Kossyvaki points out that this process can take up to a decade, during which time the technology can change or even disappear.

Among the factors to be considered by product manufacturers are whether their tech is age-appropriate and takes into account child development in autistic children, for example, high colour contrast and high pitched sounds might be challenging for autistic individuals.

Not only should the tech itself align with the sensitivity experienced by people with autism, but the surroundings have to be taken into consideration too.

“In the majority of cases, people with ASD struggle with social interaction and may be hypersensitive to some stimuli, such as light and sound,” notes Smith.

“The environment should ideally be clutter-free, quiet and without florescent lights as autistic individuals tend to have sensory processing difficulties which can prevent them from engaging in an activity,” adds Dr Kossyvaki.

King points out that technology helps provide the very environment that young people with autism need.

“Technology such as collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams allows them to participate remotely or in a space that works best for them. Technology can also enable autistic learners who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally to still participate in class discussions or to ask for help via Teams Chat while in the class.”

Screen time: for better or for worse

Despite the clear opportunities afforded by the introduction of edtech into academic environments, the proponents of it are careful about its implementation and aware of the sensitivities of its users.

Several leading figures in the digital world point out that the opportunity is double-edged overall.

Dr Sue Cranmer, senior lecturer in digital education and social justice at Lancaster University notes:

“It is clear that edtech has huge potential for children and young people with autism to learn but much more research is needed in this area if these opportunities are to be realised. Research needs to underpin the development of technological innovation that engages young people and their teachers in creating activities that support learning while also being aware and avoiding the inherent risks of being online.”

Expanding on these risks Sonia Livingstone OBE, Professor of Social Psychology at LSE and Research Lead at the Digital Futures Commission cites research showing that “young people with autism are more likely to spend most of their leisure time on digital media platforms, especially playing video games, than typically developing peers.”

“Their parents worry they can become ‘fixated on’ or ‘obsessed by’ or ‘addicted to’ technology, missing out on other social or learning opportunities.

“At the same time, they hope that such a fascination with technology could be productively harnessed, to motivate their children to learn and develop their communication skills in an alternative way, also appreciating that digital activities can be valued by society, conferring a positive identity (as a gift or, even, as a ‘geek’) and, possibly, funded learning opportunities (e.g. via coding camps or after school clubs centred on edtech).”

“While there is some evidence pointing to the benefits of using edtech for young people with autism, this is counterbalanced by evidence that it can isolate children or result in other negative consequences such as unequal access or making them feel stigmatised.”

Read more: UK parliament launches online SEND sessions

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