Tips for Using Assistive Technology Devices

two people pointing at a speech generating device

Tablets and other devices can be great tools for autistic people of all ages. Autism Speaks has compiled the following tips to help individuals with autism benefit from using assistive technology devices in all areas of life. Read our tips below to learn more and get started. 

Using Your Assistive Technology Device for Communication

There are many wonderful apps which focus on developing language. Many families and teachers are particularly interested in helping their children and students learn to talk using a device.  This can be very helpful for individuals who are having difficulty learning language.  I recommend you work closely with your speech and language therapist on how to incorporate assistive technology into the treatment plan. In the meantime here are some tips to get you started:

What to look for in an app: 

For beginning language learners you want to have an app that has lots of pictures. Some apps come with plenty of pictures; others let you upload your own photographs.  The app should also speak the word when the picture is touched.  It’s also nice if you can control how many pictures are displayed at a time, and make your own categorization system to keep track of all the different pictures.

Using Your Device to make a Request

  1. Start by modeling how it’s done! When the individual wants something, have the device out and touch the picture so the device says the word.  Repeat the word yourself, then hand over what he or she is asking for.  For example, if he or she wants another slice of pizza, press the device picture of a piece of pizza. The device says “pizza”, you repeat “pizza”, and you hand over the pizza.
  2. Any time the device user tries to repeat the word, or say the word, make sure to reward him!  After doing the above example many times, he or she may make a “p” sound when they want pizza, or repeat the word after the device.  If the device user makes any attempt to communicate in this way, make sure to hand over the pizza (or whatever he wants) right away.
  3. Any time you’re the individual tries to communicate using the device, make sure to reward him or her!  If he or she presses a picture, make sure to give the requested item, even if you’re not sure that’s really what he/she wants. That will help them learn to associate the pictures with objects. At first you may want to have only one or two pictures up at a time on the device, until the individual learns how to use it. In most apps, you can increase and decrease the number of pictures on the screen at one time.

Keep in mind:

If you are using the device primarily to teach language, you might want to avoid putting games on it at first, at least until you’re the user is consistently communicating.  Otherwise he may open games when you want him to be talking to you! 

If you’re using the device for communication, make sure it’s available all the time, you don’t want to take away his or her voice.

This is just the beginning! Teachers or speech and language pathologist can help you start to use the device in conversations once your child has the basics.

Using Your Device for Daily Activities

Your device can help individuals with daily activities and routines.  They can help with staying on a schedule, and laying out the steps in completing activities.

What to look for in an app:

There are many different scheduling apps, as well as ones with visual supports.  Which one is best will depend on your needs and types of activities.

Ways to use your device for daily activities:

  1. Keep a schedule on the device, with reminders that pop up when it’s time for the next activity.
  2. Have steps for activities that are difficult for the individual with autism, such as teeth brushing, getting dressed, etc. You can have pictures with each step in putting on pajamas that the device user can follow along to help increase his/her independence.
  3. Use a visual schedule to help with evening routines.  For example, after school you may have a snack, then do homework, then be allowed to play outside.  Having a picture of what he or she is supposed to be doing first and what’s coming next may help keep them focused.

Keep in mind: 

Ask treatment providers to help you set up a routine and set up the apps!

Using Your Device as a Reward

Note: This should only be used by those who do not use their device for communication. As stated above, If you’re using the device for communication, make sure it’s available all the time; you don’t want to take away his or her voice.

Many individuals with autism find the device very motivating, and this is a good opportunity to use it to encourage new skills.

What to look for in an app: 

Give special attention to games that are engaging for the user!

Ways to use as a reward:

  1. Choose a behavior you want to increase that is appropriate for the device user’s skill level.  This may be something simple like playing nicely with a sibling, or something more complicated like getting ready for school independently.
  2. Break down the behavior into small steps that you can reward. For example, if you want them to play nicely with a sibling, you may break down the behavior by rewarding for every minute he or she plays without hitting.  Over time you can increase the demands, to two minutes without hitting, then five minutes without hitting before he gets the device.  If you choose something like getting ready for school independently, first you would help him /her through most steps, and have him brush his teeth independently before getting the device.  Once this is consistent you’d have him/her eat breakfast and brush their teeth before playing on the device.  You can add in getting dressed, packing a back-pack, and other tasks over time.
  3. Make sure you’re consistent.  Whatever step they are working on should result in the reward each time a task is completed.  Remember not to give the reward at other times.  This sends mixed messages. Over time you can add in more behaviors that can earn time on the device.

Keep in mind:

  • A behavioral therapist or teacher can help you pick an appropriate behavior and reward system.
  • You may need to set a timer to indicate when it’s time to stop playing on the device.