Helping Children with Autism Adapt to a Digital World

May 23, 2022

There is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated some trends we had already been witnessing—such as technology adoption and digitization. In fact, a McKinsey study suggested that the deployment of digital offerings has accelerated by seven years.

However, living in an increasingly digital world will not make life easy for everyone—especially children with autism, who need to rely on routines for their comfort. Although a range of tools has emerged to support these children, digital inclusion remains an urgent issue. We must ensure that the migration of educational and recreational experiences to the Web doesn’t leave them behind.

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By being more conscious of the needs of autistic children when designing and developing digital experiences, we can make sure that we provide autistic children with the support they need to successfully navigate the Web and other online platforms. The development of special communication tools for autistic children requires that technology companies have both a greater sense of social entrepreneurship and a more deliberate UX model. Such tools can pave the way for autistic children to have more comfortable interactions with the digital world.

In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, how can we ensure that technology empowers children with autism rather than confuses them?

User-Centered Tools Are Vital

During the pandemic, the forced closure of schools, playgrounds, and social clubs has had a significant impact on all families. But, because many children with autism require structure and familiarity, these closures have been particularly challenging for them.

Creating digital experiences that address the preferences of autistic children is vital to instilling a sense of comfort in them. Media that are heavy on visuals and graphics typically get a more positive response from children with autism than having to read a long series of words. Interactive tablets or whiteboards, for example, can be great user-centered tools for these children, who can learn or play by using videos and interactive games.

Children with autism can further overcome social-interaction obstacles through the help of digital-communication tools. Speech-generating devices and keyboards, as well as push-to-communicate buttons need to find their way into more of the online educational tools that schools and parents use.

Because estimates tell us that up to 30 percent of the children with autism cannot communicate verbally, it is also imperative that they have more digital solutions that focus specifically on improving their communications. Text-to-speech software is another tool that can help children with autism become more comfortable verbally, as well as their not needing to rely on reading traditional blocks of text for learning.

Currently, our online world often lacks the external support that children with autism need to succeed. In the context of remote learning, learning institutions tend to opt for traditional, one-size-fits-all methods, which could make students who are struggling to keep up more susceptible to procrastination and feelings of frustration.

The needs of children with autism are unique, and technology solutions should pay close attention to their needs and incorporate solutions for them at every step along the way. For example, we know that children who have autism often welcome online interactions because they may feel more comfortable when communicating through messaging platforms. Nevertheless, providing additional safeguards is still a necessity on these platforms.

A Change of Focus

From artificial intelligence (AI) companions that help children with autism feel more at ease to mindfulness applications that help them battle anxiety, emerging innovations are providing huge value to this community. However, as useful as many of these tools are, we still need a broader cultural shift within the consumer-technology industry.

“The Internet is the most empowering invention of the past century, [but] we need to focus on creating tools to assist persons with special needs,” said Amitabh Kumar, the founder of Social Media Matters. “I hope large tech companies can look beyond profits to create viable solutions. It's time to push for responsible social entrepreneurship rather than a market driven one.”

One solution from the technology industry has come in the form of a robot that helps children with autism to better recognize people’s facial expressions. Milo, the robot that the University of Bristol developed in the UK, makes a face to express a certain emotion, then asks children to identify what the robot is feeling by choosing an option from a list of choices on a tablet. Digital tools such as this can help the children overcome one of their biggest hurdles, which is keying in on social cues.

Unfortunately, as things stand now, we’re having to rely on niche products and software that specifically target children with autism from just a handful of companies. But we should be asking ourselves how we can make all digital content and services more accessible and inclusive to people with diverse needs. Prioritizing clarity, brevity, and engagement through content that resonates with young minds would be a great start.

Perhaps even more importantly, options that support easy personalization should be at the heart of any new development. There is a famous saying: “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met only one child with autism.” So letting users choose their own setup is key to accommodating their sensory levels or format preferences. From enabling text-to-speech to providing multiple-color background options, even seemingly little things make a big difference.

User Experience Is an Important Frontier

Just as with architecture in the real world, those of us who design technology have a responsibility toward our users: to provide the best possible user experience. Incorporating elements that improve the user experience for children who have autism—such as the use of whitespace—might enable better, cleaner design solutions for everyone.

Visuals can be a great aid to autistic children, but we shouldn’t overdo them. The use of simple, nonaggressive graphic indicators is a great example of this. Children with autism value predictability. So rather than leaving them wondering whether there is a malfunction when a Web site takes a few seconds to load, incorporating progress indicators for more time-consuming interactions is a great strategy. However, designers should be wary of incorporating too many motion elements, which could result in sensory overload.

Instead of overwhelming children with too many options, always provide a logical, step-by-step progression and clear instructions. Avoid being vague at all costs: Replace a Click here link or button with a more straightforward description such as Start the lesson or Take a 5-minute exercise break.

A Web site or application’s copy plays a fundamental role in its use. Long paragraphs of text can be challenging and could even act as a barrier to a child’s proceeding with his or her journey. Share information in bite-sized chunks or bullet points. For the content itself, use precise language without metaphors, idioms, and overly complex associations.

Sensitive minds might also react negatively to overly bright colors. According to studies, all children who have been diagnosed with autism—but boys in particular—prefer brown and green to yellow. So using earthy, unsaturated tones is a good idea. Conveniently, many of the UX design suggestions that work well for children with attention-deficit disorder (ASD) are good practices to follow no matter the site, application, or audience. 

With today’s digital-age technology, we’ve never been better equipped to deliver value to children with autism. To help them reach their full potential, we must educate ourselves on their unique needs and consciously incorporate solutions for them into the work we do. 

Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy

New York City, New York, USA

Estee RothsteinAt Golden Care Therapy, a New Jersey-based provider of in-home care for autistic children and their families, Estee offers applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to children with autism. Estee earned her Master’s degree from Touro College in New York City and received her certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from the Florida Institute of Technology. She founded Golden Care Therapy when she saw the need for an ABA agency that can provide true individualized care. Estee has loved seeing Golden Care Therapy grow from a small side job to a full-fledged company whose dedicated therapists ensure that children with autism can succeed. Estee regularly contributes to discussions about autism, as both a public speaker and a writer.  Read More

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