Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological and developmental condition that impacts a person’s social, communication, and behavioral aspects of life. It results in persistent restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior or interests.  It is a lifelong condition and mainly appears during the early childhood years. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms can vary from person to person. There is no known cure for autism. However, treatments such as applied behavioral analysis (ABA), occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy are available to minimize the impact of symptoms and maximize functional independence. Similarly, some pharmaceutical treatments are also available to improve behavioral symptoms such as irritability, aggression, and self-injurious behavior. 

As per the CDC, approximately, 1 in 68 children in the United States have been diagnosed with Autism, and it is the third most common developmental disability. Similarly, according to British Medical Association, an estimated 700,000 people in the UK, including one in 100 children, are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Children affected with ASD lack communication, social, and cognitive skills and require multidisciplinary approaches such as education, treatments, and a combination of therapies by professionals, educators, or certified therapists. Sometimes it is not possible for the professional to cater to the specific needs of an individual child either it requires extra time or there is a lack of therapeutic tools. However, today, technology is bringing new avenues for the children affected by ASD. Assistive technology also called Augmentative and alternative communication AAC systems is getting much wider attention as a communication gateway. These technologies help to increase accessibility, improve cognitive ability, enhance daily living skills that help to function more independently. These assistive technologies are divided into three categories, which are as follows – 

Low-Tech Assistive Technology For Autism

Low-Tech Technology develops social and organizational skills. Low-tech assistive technology does not involve any form of technology but some basic applications and tools such as dry erase board, graphic organizer, clipboards, 3-ring binders, tactile ruler, manila file folders, photo albums, manipulatives, slant board laminated PCS/photographs, highlighter, etc. These applications hold the potential to create a sense of independence and discourage challenging behavior. The ultimate goal of the low-tech and Mid-Tech Technology tools is to prepare students for high-tech assistive technology. 

Mid-Tech Assistive Technology For Autism

Mid-Tech Technology uses video modeling and apps to develop organizational, social, communication, and academic skills. The mid-tech assistive technology for Autism consists of an electrical device such as screen magnifier, audiobook, adapted cd player/music player, voice amplification, scooter, gait trainer, wheelchair, braille translation software, switch adapted games or toys, adapted switches, adapted seating (bouncy ball, chairs with seat belts, wiggly butt cushions), adapted keyboard, calculator, electronic speller or dictionary, word prediction software and many more.

High-Tech Assistive Technology For Autism

High-tech assistive technologies are expensive among the three categories of technologies and help in learning the language, social skills, and also enhance motor skills. High-Tech technology uses video, audio, and educational software with bright, colorful graphics and animation that increases the attention and focus of the person as well as decreases agitation. Easily customizability is the major advantage of these devices. High-tech assistive technology includes electronic devices such as computers, tablets (iPad, iPod, Kindle, Samsung tablet, etc.), electric wheelchair, adaptive hardware, portable word processor, complex voice output devices (text to speech, speech to text AAC Device), smart board, alerting device, and many others. The videos, in particular, can help in understanding voice, body language, facial expressions, etc. Prediction software is also available that can decrease the physical demand needed for written composition. Similarly, speech-generating or voice output communication devices can overcome the verbal communication barrier and help the children to express themselves. Virtual reality, 3D animation, collaborative virtual environments, 3D avatars are some of the advanced technologies expected to create a significant improvement in interaction, expression, and communication. 

Benefits of Assistive Technology For Autism

The improvement in communication skills is one of the major advantages of these technologies as it uses visual words or pictures on display to aid in communication. It is observed that the visual representation of language (or Visual Learning) helps the child to communicate in a much better way with others than other forms. The sense of self-reliance and independence is another major advantage. Assistive technology improves the organization and memory to plan, organize and track information such as events, schedule, calendar, to-do list, and many others. The development of social skills (such as engagement, behavior, thinking,) academic skills, motor development, are some other benefits associated with assistive technology.

Drawbacks of Assistive Technology For Autism

Assistive technology is helpful to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with Autism. However, there are some negative aspects associated with these technologies. The addiction to screen-based technology such as phones or tablets is one of the major drawbacks. Long exposure can affect social skills and in some cases may create anxiety. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder require careful attention, with assistive technology there is a scope for special attention. Similarly, sleep disturbance is another major issue with the use of technology. Children affected by Autism lack melatonin that helps to regulate sleep, the long exposure to tablets and phones can even make the situation worse. 

What lies ahead

The use of technology as a tool to develop social, emotional, and behavioral skills in people with autism has observed phenomenal growth over the years. These assistive technologies are improving and evolving and at the same time empowering and encouraging them to grow. Apart from assistive technology, there is a significant growth in the diagnosis, treatment, research, and awareness for ASD, which has improved the functioning and the quality of life of children with ASD. At the therapeutics end, several interventions have been developed and studied for use in young children. Currently, some of the major global pharmaceutical companies such as Otsuka Pharmaceutical, GW Research Ltd, Hoffmann-La Roche, Curemark, and others are developing novel therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorder. The launch of the therapies in the coming years is expected to transform the ASD treatment scenario.