Assistive Technologies


Deandra Christopher

Deandra Christopher (
Prism EdTech (
University of Ontario Institute of Technology


This chapter focuses on addressing how assistive technology (AT) can be used by teachers to foster inclusion and participation in students with high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. Core deficits of ASD challenges will be briefly outlined. An overview how AT can help these students develop core skills and mange challenges in order to engage in general curriculum. A variety of assistive technology tools ranging from low tech to high tech will be highlighted and how they can be integrated will be outlined. Areas for further research and analysis is also noted.

Keywords: Autism, Assistive Technology, Curriculum, Higher functioning autism,


This ‚Äúdigital revolution‚ÄĚ is transforming how teachers educate students and how students are learning. Today, technology is important in the design and development of the curriculum, it also has the potential to give learners an enjoyable, engaging, challenging and motivating experience of learning, while raising achievement and improving learning outcomes (Parsons et al., 2015). Additionally, technology integration into curriculum has the ability to increase and improve learning opportunities for students with special needs. Despite the advancement in technology, many parents from the Ontario Autism Coalition advocacy group argue 72% of the children do not get the level of support needed at school (Kirby-Mcintosh & McLaughin 2017).¬†An article published by Huffington Post in November 2017 claimed Ontario‚Äôs education system was in crisis for students with Autism. The article advocated that due differential treatment of students and board policies varying so widely from on child in one board to another, many students are denied specialized equipment that would help them communicate or learn (Kirby-Mcintosh & McLaughin 2017).

This shift in curriculum design and technology integration needs to be inclusive to students with special needs. There is a growing number of special needs students in K-12 who are in specialized classrooms and general education classrooms. In 2004 Ministry of Education estimated there was over 16, 000 students with ASD in publicly funded schools (Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 2013). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a developmental disorder that affects an individuals’ social, communicative and language skills (Ping, Scharf, Nelson & Brooks, 2012). Although many individuals with ASD are characterized by the above core deficits, some individuals have strong language abilities but have challenges in social communication skills. Due to the noted deficits, many of these students have unique learning needs and can often face challenges with accessing and participating in curriculum (Mintz, 2013).

This chapter highlights how assistive technology can be integrated to support higher functioning students with ASD in K-12 education. The technology tools reviewed target how to support the development of social communication, manage rigid behaviour, cognitive and motor differences in order to maximize participation and engagement in curriculum.

Background Information

Factors That Affect Autism Spectrum Disorder Student Success

Many high functioning ASD students struggle in mainstream schools. A number of researchers have argued that inclusion for students with ASD is difficult for mainstream schools to provide due to their deficits. Impairments with understanding social conventions, challenges with emotional regulation and organization, as well as associated risk of bullying can lead to a lack of inclusion for students in mainstream schools (Mintz, 2013). Additionally, due to the above mentioned challenges, many students find participating in core academic curriculum areas of reading, writing, math, group work , comprehension and task management daunting (Mintz, 2013).

Benefits of Technology Integration

AT is identified by educators as an essential tool in education because it ‚Äėlevels the playing field‚Äô and assists teachers with helping students meet¬†¬†their goals (Chambers & Berlach, 2015). The literature has highlights many benefits which include: the development of functional skills that can be generalized to natural settings, improved physical fitness, enhanced social communication, better time management, greater task completion, communication with others, heightened self-worth and improved academic outcomes (Chambers & Berlach, 2015).

Literature Review

Computer assisted technology (CAT), Technology Aided Intervention and Instruction (TAII), Assistive Technology (AT) has been found to be an effective treatment method compared to other interventions for students with disabilities (Ping et al., 2017; Southall 2013; Barton, Pustejovsky, Maggin & Reichow 2017) . TAII includes a wide range of technology including: laptop computers, smart phones, tablets, virtual networks and applications. A meta-analysis conducted by Barton et al., 2017 on ASD and TAII literature revealed that technology improved academic, communication and social outcomes for students with ASD. Assistive Technology (AT) has been used to support student with special needs in educational, vocational, independent living settings (Southall, 2013). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) define assistive technology as any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is issued to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability (Hopkins, 2004). Particularly in education, AT helps many students access information, connect with others, and participate in ways that could not have possible without the use of AT (Hopkins, 2004). Today there are over 29,000 AT devices available, compared to less than 100 in the 1970s (Southall, 2013).

Types of Assistive Technology

Assistive devices are categorized based on a continuum and classified as low-tech, medium-tech or high tech based on the level of sophistication in features, cost, level support need to needed to use (Chambers & Berlach, 2015). Chamber & Berlach (2015) describe low and medium-tech devices as requiring only basic instruction or and not overly complicated to operate. Low tech devices are often not electronic, simple to make and acquire such as communication boards, visual schedules, highlighter, word rings. Medium tech devices are reasonably complicated such as talking calculators, visual timers, tablets and IPad applications. Lastly, high tech devices are most complex and often specialized to accommodate a specific function and requires more training, which can include: software (Inspiration mapping), augmentative communication devices, Smartboards (Chamber & Berlach, 2015) .

Technology to support High Functioning Autism Spectrum Differences (HFASD)

Social Communication

Many students demonstrate difficulty understanding and using contextual or social cues as a means of engaging in the social world. Students with ASD have a greater risk of emotional breakdowns in public places because of difficulty tolerating mistakes, low tolerance for frustration, and high anxiety (Southall, 2013). All of these can affect educational opportunities and can make integrating into the general education environment difficult.


The benefits of virtual environments can include systematic instruction, group environments to encourage interactions, and modern technology to present skills visually for individuals with HFSD. It can also provide accommodations that ‚Äúfacilitate appropriate forms of social inclusion‚ÄĚ (Southall, 2013).

Table 1
Assistive Technology Applications for Social Communication

Low Tech Med Tech-Edmodo High Tech- Google Classroom
Chart paper and markers Secure online social learning platform for teachers, students and parents Paperless assignment tool
Sticky notes and pens Tool for communication and organization Allows teachers and students to collaborate in real time
Students and teachers can share class materials, post videos and links Keeps students on track and organized
Students can share ideas and ask questions Teachers can access student work and connect with students
Reminders – desktop and mobile app
Curriculum Integration
Student can integrate activities around lessons that involve students sharing ideas on paper Teachers can integrate lessons on any desired curriculum, but they can foster sharing, discussion, monitor student activity and overall increase opportunity for student engagement Expansive and integrative platform teachers can embed into classroom curriculum on any subject, but teachers can foster collaboration, discussion and sharing virtually

Virtual environments or online forums for group work and projects can serve as effective accommodations for general education coursework by reducing the emphasis on effective social skills, thereby allowing students with HFASD to demonstrate their true academic ability and participate in collaborative work in a meaningful way (Southall, 2013).

Rigidity in Behaviour

Although students with high functioning ASD may not present sterotypy behaviours, such as hand flapping, many students are more likely to have restricted behaviours. Additionally, unexpected transitions can be difficult due rigidity can cause behaviours (Alhandi, 2014). All of the listed challenges are marked by rigidity, thus a need for sameness, order and predicting the environment (Mintz, 2013). Lack of integration of strategies to address these core characteristics can cause student distraction and affect engagement in curriculum.


Table 2
Assistive Technology Applications for Rigidity in Behaviour

Low Tech-Textual/Visual Schedules or Agenda  Med Tech-AutiPlan High Tech- Google Classroom & Calendar Integration
 Can be designed with pictures or text Visual schedule uses visual strength to increase understanding Teachers are able to manually add events such as field trips, guest speakers, assemblies, etc. to specific Classroom Calendars so that parents and students can view not only assignments and classroom events
Outline of the day can be placed around the classroom and students can monitor activities throughout the day Visual schedule app that can integrate text, picture or symbols
 Using student agenda to track activities Teachers can use planner interface to create day plans for multiple students from one central place
Students can track, monitor and check off activities within the classroom
Students can share ideas and ask questions
Curriculum Integration
Situating a schedule or outline for the day can create awareness for students Teachers can customize individual scheduling in classroom environments Teachers can foster organizational and self-monitoring skills
Teachers can foster independence and metacognitive skills in students when developing activities

To accommodate difficulties with transitions, activity schedules can provide a primer for the day’s events and serve as static reminders of the day’s progress for individuals with ASD (Bryan & Gast, 2000). Visual media can facilitate higher success and independence than other forms of cues such as the ephemeral verbal cue and sign language (Southall, 2013).

Cognitive Differences

Many students with ASD have weak central coherence and deficits in executive functioning and that is associated with learning challenges which can range from synthesizing information, initiating tasks, problem solving, etc.) (Southall, 2013). Additionally, many children with high functioning ASD are likely to have a learning disability in reading, written expression, and/or math and 95% of people with ASD also demonstrate symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Alhandi, 2014).

Literature describes weak central coherence as individuals with ASD inability to integrate information to make a meaningful whole (Southall, 2013). Mintz (2013) defines executive function as cognitive functioning that controls processes such as working memory, concentration, behavior inhibition, planning, initiation, performance monitoring, and self-regulation‚ÄĒdeficits in these areas make organization, time management more difficult (Mintz, 2013).


Table 3
Assistive Technology for Cognitive Differences

Low Tech-Classroom tools Med Tech-Popplet  High Tech- Inspiration Software
Highlighter tape to emphasize words/phrases Popplet is a simple and easy-to-use brainstorming app that helps users develop stronger organizational, memory, and writing skills. A graphic organizer is a visual display that demonstrates relationships between facts, concepts or idea
Reading Helper-white plastic strip with highlighting down the middle  Popplet helps users consolidate information in an organized manner Concept map helps students organize and represent knowledge of a subject
Mind mapping worksheets Mind mapping is a visual form of note taking that offers an overview of a topic and its complex information.
Webbing-A web is a visual map that shows how different categories of information relate to one another
Curriculum Integration
Teachers can make a concept map with connections between ideas Teachers can use graphic organizers within textbooks to present new information and concepts,
Teachers can integrate the app into lesson planning, expanding on themes, content Inspiration enables integration across the curriculum, templates are available for English Language Arts, Science, Social Studies and Thinking and Planning
Teachers can present concepts and build on them
Teachers can foster collaboration amongst peers

Graphic organizers accommodate weak central coherence by helping students make meaning and understand relationships with visual representations. They have been found to be effective across content areas for students with both neurotypical and specific learning disabilities (Southall, 2013).

Motor Differences

Motor differences have a pervasive impact for most individuals with ASD, because many social and academic skills are learned through movement (Parsons, Yuill, Brosnan & Good, 2015). Thus, students with motor challenges can have difficulty engaging in activities that require handwriting and/or note taking.


Table 4
Assistive Technology for Motor Differences

Low Tech-Classroom tools Med Tech-Actively Learn High Tech- Dragon Dictation
Page holders- also look for clear picture holders to hold story pages, schedules, directions, vocabulary words, math tables, etc.; place in page holder on desk for continuous access; student can manipulate cards to create sentences, number problems, etc. if writing is difficult Application that can be integrated into Google Classroom Speech recognition software technology
Key Features include: Key features include: 90% accuracy in dictation, 3 times faster than typing, improves core reading and writing skills
‚󏬆¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Activate thinking-in line discussions, tie questions to writing ¬†Student benefits can include: fostering independence, transforming thoughts into words
‚󏬆¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Support Thinking-differentiated scaffolding, dictionary and translation
‚󏬆¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Reveal Thinking-students can monitor cognition, monitor student difficulty
‚󏬆¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Gain insight about student learning
Curriculum Integration
 Teachers can integrate and download direct news, textbooks, media on various curriculums such as science, social studies, history Teachers can integrate this software into courses, which typically address keyboarding, computer applications, data input, and business technology
Teachers can also create lesson plan and activities that encourage students to use Dragon software to collect, share, document ideas

Studies and clinical reports reviewed demonstrate that speech recognition software can be used effectively to help students with a disability gain active control over their environment (Mintz, 2013).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

The tools highlighted in this chapter demonstrate that integrating AT tools in a classroom environment can increase engagement and participation for students with high functioning ASD. All the tools highlighted were versatile and can be incorporated into a variety of curriculum material. The range of low to high tech tools offer options for teachers.

Further research on how the above tools can be adopted for different grade levels, details on the level of teacher training required to adopt the tools is also an area further review.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 Copyright © 2018 by Deandra Christopher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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