World Autism Awareness Week started on Saturday. With one in every 100 people on the autism spectrum, and a new BBC series highlighting that even the word ‘autism’ may suggest different things to different people, it’s an issue educators must concern themselves with.
It is easy to overlook the difficulties some autistic people face in many aspects of everyday life including education, such as challenges in understanding social interactions, in concentrating and processing information.
Though there can sometimes be issues with over-use, technology can actually help us support our learners more effectively. Here are ten ideas for lecturers in higher (HE) and further education (FE) to better meet the needs of autistic students through considered use of technology.
Encourage autistic students to interact using technology
People on the autism spectrum can experience social isolation. For those uncomfortable or not used to working with others, technology can facilitate real life actions and aid social interaction. Allowing them to contribute to group work online via email, skype or social media may suit autistic learners better than face to face.
Give crystal clear messages
When communicating with autistic people, think about the language you use. Make it clear, unambiguous and focused on positives and strengths.
You may like to read the National Autistic Society’s helpful commenting tips designed to support constructive communication online. They recommend, for example, using emoticons to help autistic learners to understand emotion during feedback.
Encourage learners to use mobile tech to support their study skills
Autistic students can find it hard to organise their workload and deal with change. With staff encouragement, apps like Evernote and OneNote can make organisation much easier, while planning projects and tasks can be simplified using visual planning/mind-mapping tools and specialist apps like brain in hand.
For a fuller list, CALL Scotland has provided a categorised guide to relevant iPad apps, while other sites share useful Android apps that may be helpful in finding the right tech for an individual - though bear in mind this is a specialist area and proper assessment is crucial.
Support autistic students with written work
Some learners have difficulty with the process of note taking. Make sure students are allowed to record lectures individually if there isn’t a lecture capture system in place. To help them digest new topics you should also consider giving them access to slides in advance via your virtual learning environment.
Use visuals to support your communication
Using videos and graphics sensitively can help autistic people understand written information. Mobile devices offer ways to personalise and facilitate interaction and give equality of access. Storymaking apps like Pictello make social stories very easy to create on smart phones and tablet devices using the built-in camera and adding text, images and links. Staff and learners can use these stories to simply communication.
One example is Beaumont College in Lancaster, where some students rely on visual prompts and picture-based communication systems. Symbol talker app, GridPlayer is used to facilitate communication and give equality of access.
Consider alternative assessment procedures
You can design a curriculum to provide multiple pathways through learning, rather than ‘retro-fixing’ existing materials - this is the universal design for learning concept. You can allow flexibility in the ways in which students present their work, in line with their communication abilities and preferences. Apps including Book Creator allow learners to create rich media content that charts their personal education journeys and shares their achievement.
Other examples include Treloar College in Hampshire which uses digital devices to enable students to create their own stories as evidence of achievement.
Ask your learners
They are the experts in what they want and need. Make sure they have a chance to identify what they are good at; many autistic people are digitally skilled and enjoy using technology. They can thrive with timely support.
Support autistic learners to be heard in the lecture hall and beyond
Giving personalised support to autistic learners can help them to be heard or ‘self-advocate’. If you’re part of a university in Europe, you can ask your organisation to get the Autism&uni toolkit so students have information on disclosing and studying but also, importantly, managing difficult situations like complaining and meeting with tutors.
An alternative approach is appointing disability champions to provide support through an e-mentoring scheme - such as at the University of Sheffield.
There’s plenty of information out there on supporting your autistic learners. Anyone can download the best practice guides for university staff offering insights, ideas, prompts and direct action developed by the Autism&uni project. The Autism Toolbox is a Scottish government resource with advice, links to resources and further reading as well as opportunities for ongoing development and showcasing good practice.
Engage senior management
Aside from these practical tips, it’s also vital that your organisation engages with policies and strategies to support learners appropriately; for example, you could encourage senior leaders to review the organisation’s accessibility strategy. For more, see our guide to supporting learners on the autistic spectrum.