Technology Use By Adolescents with Autism: It's Not Just for Playing Video Games and Watching Animated Movies

Saturday, May 14, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
S. Hedges, UNC Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: New technologies have the potential to lead to novel, more efficient, and cost effective supports that may enhance quality of life for individuals with autism and their families. Research has shown that many individuals with autism have an affinity to screen-based technology and use it widely for recreation (e.g. to watch videos and play video games). However, the use of technology as a support by students with autism remains largely unexplored. 

Objectives:  To describe the forms of technology used by high school students with autism and for what purpose. To gain insights into student perceptions of the benefits of technology use as well as possible barriers to use in the school context.

Methods:  Paper surveys were given to 174 high school students with autism across three states in the U.S. (North Carolina, Wisconsin, California). Follow-up qualitative interviews were conducted by email with 15 survey respondents to gain deeper insights into their perspectives.

Results:  The majority of respondents ( 84%) bring internet capable technology with them to school each day and actively use technology to learn, stay organized, and to enhance their communication and social interactions. For example, they use technology to look things up on the internet (98%), to make presentations (88%), and to collaborate with other students on assignments (64%). But more than half indicated they are not permitted to use technology in all classes and 57% said that technology can be a distraction. Some students shared their strategies to reduce the distraction factor. The majority (82%) use technology to communicate with friends and roughly half indicated they use technology to socialize because it makes it easier to locate people with similar interests. Surprisingly, respondents prefered texting (69%) to email (64%) and the majority are active on a variety of social media websites. Not surprising, the majority (97%) believe they are good at using technology and 68% want to study a technology related subject in college. While only 30% had taken an online course, 55% of respondents said they would like to take one in the future. 78 participants wrote in specific apps and technology tools they use for support throughout the day including apps to help them handle stress and to sleep.

Conclusions:  Many teens with autism are carrying powerful technology tools with them to school each day with the potential to ameliorate or bypass many of the deficits associated with autism. These tools are helping some of them to learn, stay organized, to communicate, and to find friends. Opportunities exist for researchers, practitioners and families to encourage and enhance technology use as a support tool.