Technology and Autism: The New Way of Communicating

autism-5Autism is a complex group of disorders that effect brain development. Such disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as repetitive behaviours (Autism Speaks, 2016). It is estimated that 1 in every 68 children currently live with autism (Favaro, 2014). This number has risen from 1 in every 88 children diagnosed in earlier studies (Favaro, 2014). Although there is no concrete answer as to why the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to increase, as well as no known cure for this disorder; developers have increased the prevalence and creation of assistive technologies aimed to benefiting the development of children with autism.

When I think of the term “assistive technology” I immediately imagine high-tech devices that are expensive and not readily available for everyday use. However, did you know that assistive technology can be low tech? Thats right! Assistive technology is a wide range of low and high tech materials. Historically, many educators and therapists have used a plethora of non-technology materials in order to help children with autism. For example, many educators and therapists use choice boards. The purpose of this aid is for children who are non-verbal to select the activities that they want to complete. Or, children can use this board to point out needs; such as using the washroom. Although I believe that low-tech  assistive technology should not become extinct in educational settings, I do believe that new advances can also be beneficial for children.

Although there are a variety of apps and technology that assists the development of children with autism, I will be focusing on assistive technology that helps children communicate. 

In an article published by the Dailymail, researchers have found that carefully constructed apps are enabling children to feel safe and communicate more readily because the software is more predictable and ordered compared to human interaction (Woollaston, 2014). Children with autism tend to react negatively to unpredicted situations, however the real world is often unpredictable. Nonetheless, when using technology, when we press a button, we know the anticipated response. This is why children with autism gravitate to technology because they find comfort in the predictability! (Woollaston, 2014).

Researchers have also uncovered that technology can help children with autism develop new skills in order to promote further development (Woollaston, 2014). Many children with autism are non-verbal. They may feel isolated from their environment as they are not able to communicate their needs and ideas like their peers. From experience, while working in a special needs summer camp; one of our campers had autism and was non-verbal. Because he was not able to vocalize his needs he often began physically violent to himself or other staff as he often felt frustrated because it sometimes took the camp leaders time to uncover what was wrong. He was not provided with assistive technology at camp to help him communicate, so as staff, we would assess the environment to uncover the problem.

However, many developers have created apps that help non-verbal children verbalize their feelings. Check out this article which examines seven assistive communication apps designed for children who are non-verbal.  However, I wanted to highlight Proloquo2Go which is the most well known assistive communications app available for the iPad. This app is successful with professionals and parents as it is easy to set up, provides natural sounding text-to-speak voices, high resolution up-to-date symbols, powerful automatic conjugations, as well as a default vocabulary of over 7,000 items. This app is also easy to navigate as it has an exceptional graphic display. I have seen children use this app in educational settings, and I am amazed to see the profound impact it has on their social development. Children with autism as more open to approaching their peers as they are provided a medium to express their feelings. I would defiantly suggest this app to parents of non-verbal children!

A recent Ontario study also confirms the positive effect of communication apps with children who have autism and are non-verbal. This study followed  twelve children over a six month period. Each child was provided an iPad with communication apps. Researchers found that nine of the students showed an improvement ranging from mild to significant with regards to their communication skills (Woollaston, 2014). The study also found that 75% of the children studied experienced higher levels of motivation which increased their attention span as well as their ability to interact socially in the classroom (Woollaston, 2014).

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All in all, we all have the right to communicate. By providing assistive technology that helps children who are non-verbal communicate in the classroom other children will learn that we all can communicate … but some may just do it differently and thats okay! Although apps such as Proloquo2Go are used by many children, not ALL children are provided with such service. As professionals, we are working towards more inclusive practices. I believe that having these devices readily available for children in all educational settings we are one step closer to a fully inclusive community.

 

 

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Technology and Autism: The New Way of Communicating

Online Safety

 

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Many people have viewed this shocking viral video that shows the shocking truth about how easy online predators can meet young girls. The creator of this social experiment then shortly released a second video focusing on how prone boys can be to online influence as well.  Although I am not quite sure if I agree with parents scaring their children to this extreme to “teach them a lesson,” however, parents can use this video to become more aware of the dangerous side of the internet in order to teach their children online safety. Although both videos captured young teenagers, it’s important to remember that children of all ages can easily preyed to meet strangers they have “met” online.

Now imagine if the scenarios in the videos were not scripted, and these children approached actual kidnappers. Well, unfortunately there have been cases recently about children being abducted by individuals they have met on the internet. For example, in 2014 a 12 year old Baltimore girl was abducted on her way to school by a man she had been communicating with on Xbox live as well as Kik Messenger. It took the FBI four days to find the kidnapped girl as she was being held captive in North Carolina. During this time, she was raped two times from her 32 year old kidnapper. Although she is back with her family safely now, they will have to live with this traumatic event for the rest of their lives. A traumatic event that could of been avoided if internet safety was employed in the house.

Like many of the parents in the viral video, many may think “my child would never do that” or “my child knows better” but parents, reflect on this question for a bit … do you really know what your children are doing on the internet? Sure, they can tell you they are doing their homework or playing a game online, but if they are secluded in their room they are exposed to endless possibilities on the internet that may lead them into unsafe situations.

First, its imperative that parents are aware of the social media apps their children are using. 

1) Kik Messenger was one of the apps the Baltimore girl used in order to communicate with her future kidnapper. Although this app is intended for users 17 and over, the majority of the users are 11-15 years old. Many parents are simply not aware that this app exists, which draws children in creating an account. Children are moving away from Facebook simply because of the increased chance their parent or caregiver will see what they are doing. This app also allows users to create usernames, rather then using their real names – this makes it harder for parents to monitor their child if they are not aware of their username. In my opinion, I would not allow this application with children under 17 years of age because of the faulty security settings. But, sometimes if parents keep denying access children are known to rebel. An alternative to forbidding this application is continuing to educate children on the dangers of communicating with strangers as well as setting boundaries – such as no explicit messages.

2) Snapchat is a popular app amongst children and even adults. Personally, I am an avid user of this app as it allows me to send silly “snaps” to my friends. However, snapchat like any of other social media platform can pose danger. Fortunately, the users of Snapchat have recognized this risk and have created options parents can use in order to avoid unsafe situations. For example, parents can configure their child’s snapchat account to only allow messages from their friends to come through; this avoids random predators messaging your children. However, one aspect of snapchat, parents can not change is the ability for the receiver of the screenshot the snap. With that being said, educate your child that the picture they send may not always disappear after five seconds; the receiver holds the true power.

3) Although I do not totally disagree with the two applications I mentioned above, two websites that must be blocked from the child’s computer/tablet is Chatroulette and Omegle. These websites allow individuals to have conversations with complete strangers over text as well as through webcam. There is no need for children to access these sites as the individual they chat with is selected at random, which means there is no way of communicating with friends. Children are put at risk of viewing inappropriate material as well as talking to predators online. These websites make it too easy for grown adults to attract children as there is no parental controls. Also, if they do not talk over webcam it makes it easy to lie about any aspect of them including, their name, gender, and age.

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Although there are dangers while being online, and many parents are starting to grow worrisome about their children being on their internet. In my opinion, danger can be anywhere from walking outside or being behind the computer screen. We can not isolate children, but just like we teach children to talk talk to children on their way to school, we can teach them how to be safe on the internet.

Here are my suggestions… 

  • Open communication is key, because many children may not feel comfortable discussing any unsafe situations they have encountered online because of the fear of their devices being taken away indefinitely. Frank Gallagher, the executive director of Cable in the Classroom believes that there should always be an ongoing conversation about technology in the household (Raub, 2016). It is important for parents to show children that they understand the important role technology has on their lives, rather then portraying a negative view about technology. Having an open line of communication about technology will ease children’s anxiety about coming for help if they do make a mistake online (Raub, 2016). If you do find out that your child has communicated with a stranger online, remember not to “freak out” on your child. Although it is important that you find out the extremity of the conversation, in order to protect your child’s safety; use this as a learning opportunity because there will be less chances of it occurring in the future.
  • Have a family computer in an open space, this ensures that parents can monitor which sites their child is visiting. Now, in an open space I do not mean, watching over your child’s shoulder, but if they are solely able to use the computer in an open space they are less likely to engage in dangerous situations. Also, use the computer as a family device – a fun activity to do as a family is watch funny Youtube videos together! To tie into this limit, it is also important to set limits of computer time, such as what times your child can access the internet. If you refer back to my first blog post discussing a family tech agreement I offer many tips that families can use in order to create a positive technology experience.
  • Use Parental Blockers. Although I mentioned above that children should be on the internet in an open family space, it is also important to have a balance of privacy. As children grow older, and show responsibility on the internet, many parents allow internet use in private settings such as their bedrooms. However, it is important to not become oblivious at this point. Using blockers is an effective measure that ensures children are not accessing inappropriate sites. K9 Web Protection is just one service parents can use to block unwanted sites. But in order to block inappropriate sites, parents must educate themselves on the dangerous sites that exist.

However, the most important tip I can give is to EDUCATE your children on online safety! Sure it helps to take preventative measures, such as blocking websites, but lets face it if kids are determined they will find a way. However, this is less likely to occur if children are well aware of the dangers they can potentially be putting themselves in.

The Guardian provides parents with many tips on what to say to children in order to educate them on online safety, such as…

  • “If you won’t do it face to face, don’t do it online” – Ask your children if they would go talk to a stranger they see on the street. Without a doubt, all children would say no because they have been taught ever since they could talk not to interact with strangers. Now, have your children reflect on this: if they won’t talk to a stranger on the street, what is the difference online? Sure, they are not physically with the person at the moment, and it may seem harmless, but remember online is still the real world and dangerous events can still happen.
  • “Once you’ve sent it, it’s online forever” – Although you can delete text messages or posts, it remains on the internet forever. With that being said, do not share information online you would not share with your close friends and family. If you say or do anything inappropriate on the internet, it can come back to haunt you even in many years to follow.
  • Don’t let your children be naive to the dangers online. Children are innocent, they are not aware of the predators online unless they are educated. Now, we do not want to scare our children, but we want to provide them with enough information that allows them to make the right choice. There are many kid friendly resources available in order to teach children the importance of online safety. For example, this video is directed to children and teaches them the basics of online safety with regards to predators.

Lets face it, the internet is forever. Therefore, it is imperative that each generation is continuously informed about online safety!

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Online Safety

Technology and Exercise

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As the prevalence of technology increases, unfortunately, so does the rate of childhood obesity in Canada.  A recent survey conducted by the YMCA claims that alongside time, and money, technology is a key barrier parents experience in attempt to prioritizing a healthy lifestyle for their family (Tahnk, n.d). In addition, 42% of parents of children ages five to ten can agree that various technological devices such as television, video games, and cell phones are inhibiting children’s healthy lifestyles (Tahnk, n.d). However, although parents are somewhat blaming technology as a reason for a lack of exercise, a shocking 74% would rather spend quality family time watching a television show rather get active with the family (Tahnk, n.d). With that being said, it is no surprise that as of 2013 42 million infants and young children around the world were overweight or obese (Childhood Obesity Foundation, 2015). If this  continues by 2025 an estimated 70 million children will be overweight and obese worldwide (Childhood Obesity Foundation, 2015)!

If parents continue to promote unhealthy eating and lack of exercise their children will ultimately face the long-term consequences. Experts predict these unhealthy habits will follow these children into their adulthood. Obesity is proven to have multiple health implications, including an early death.

In my opinion, parents should not fully blame the rise of technology for the increased rate of overweight and obese children. Alongside a balanced diet, families should learn how to balance technology and exercise into their daily routine. However, unlike the past, children now a days are spending less time outdoors and more time indoors due to various reasons. For example, nowadays it is common for both parents to work full-time jobs. With that being said, parents may feel drained from their day at work to take their children to the park in the evening. In their eyes, it is easier to spend the evening in front of the television screen rather then taking a bike ride. In addition, while parents are at work, many children are left in the care of older siblings. However, with the rise of crime rates, parents may not feel safe allowing their children to go outside without their supervision. Times have sure changed since the common rule of be home when the street lights come on, but parents can still encourage exercise in this day age age!

Now parents, I understand that your lives are on the go. From waking the kids up, preparing them for school, going to work, coming home preparing dinner … the list goes on and on. And if that isn’t enough you may have to prey your children away from the television. But what I told you there is a way to encourage family exercise by using technology? Perhaps, that would be the first step to encouraging your family to participate in a healthy lifestyle!

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Here are some examples…

  • Play Just Dance – from personal experience, the kindergarten class I work in loves this game! Its a perfect alternative for inclement weather and it sure gets our heart rates going!
  • Make a free GoNoodle account – GoNoodle gets over 10 million children moving to be their strongest, bravest, silliest selves (GoNoodle, n.d). This awesome resource provides a variety of family friendly exercise videos in many styles including zumba, yoga, and dance!
  • Download Zombie Run – This largest fitness app, provides a fun running game! Take the family to a track and each member runs away from zombies and are given obstacles to accomplish. This app is so fun you may even forget your exercising

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Those are just some ways you can use technology to promote exercise in your house. But what about the “old school” way of exercising? Children’s sports leagues can be expensive for some families so here are some ways to promote outdoor exercise for a low cost or even for free!

  • Go on a thirty minute bike ride around the neighbourhood
  • Spend the evening at the neighbourhood park
  • Go swimming at the local recreation centre (many city operated centres have low fees)
  • Plant a family garden
  • Play games children of any generation love – such as Duck-Duck Goose, Simon Says, and Red Light Green Light)
  • Play Mini Golf
  • Set up an amateur sports league with the neighbours

Furthermore, like I have mentioned previously, many parents feel uncomfortable allowing their children to play outside when they are not home. Many parents fear that their children are at risk of abduction. However, to prevent this trauma it is essential that we teach children about outdoor safety – most importantly not to talk or approach strangers! Other common rules include creating an area they must stay in or never venturing off alone. Or, show your children this video that highlights five important outdoor play rules!

All in all, it is imperative that parents find a fine balance between technology use and exercise in the household. Lets end the obesity trend today and start striving for a healthier future!

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Technology and Exercise