Autism can give rise to problems of social interaction, communication and behaviour. Communication and language problems are a major feature of autism; over 50% of autistic people do not develop meaningful communicative language and most autistic people have problems with other forms of communication.
Autistic people are often easily distracted and have poor organisational skills. They can also find it hard to deal with abstractions and are easily obsessed with details. Although many of the features associated with autism are similar to those found in people with learning difficulties, autistic people tend to be uneven in their abilities, with noticeable strengths and weaknesses.
Abnormal motor patterns are often observed and some people can have extreme reactions to sensory input, reacting strongly to some stimuli, such as sound or light.
ICT can provide help in many different ways, among the obvious being with communication and motor difficulties. However it should always be born in mind that the computer may reinforce or provide a vehicle for some of the less desirable tendencies of autism. In fact one description of autism describes autistic people as having, among other problems, impaired reciprocal social interactions and restricted behaviours, a description that could be used for some computer enthusiasts!
Given the range and degree of problems that can occur with autism it is difficult to describe some computer software and resources as being "for autism". It is better to know and understand a pupil's needs, consider the range of ICT resources that are available and match them, if possible. It can be helpful to consider the different ways that computers can be used and how they can be adapted to support special educational needs.
Recording and writing
Word processors are commonly used to record written work. Some pupils will find it is easier to record using a computer than by hand writing and will benefit from using a standard word processor. Others may need or gain additional benefit from extra support with recording. Programs such as Inclusive Writer, Clicker and Writing with Symbols 2000 can provide additional support for writing with on-screen word/picture banks.
A neat printed copy can be more satisfying than poor handwriting. Mistakes can be more easily corrected. Speech feedback can help with motivation and checking work.
Children can write using the keyboard to spell each word. An IntelliKeys keyboard, on-screen word bank and word prediction software such as Penfriend XL can allow children to record by selecting whole words or phrases. Sentences can also be created using symbols and pictures.
Keyboards and other input methods can be used by children who find handwriting difficult.
Cause and effect and early interaction
Software can be used to help children develop a concept of cause and effect. Simple input devices such as switches and touch screens along with suitable software can encourage interaction. Children may then be able to progress to more complex tasks using a computer. Care needs to be taken as some of this software could encourage repetitive actions and interaction with a computer could be isolating. Programs such as Switch IT Farm can be used by two people, using the computer to encourage communication and interaction. Electronic books and CD-ROM software can be fun and can encourage children to concentrate for long periods. This software also can be used as a reward.
Computers and other ICT devices such as electronic communication aids can be used to support children who have communication difficulties. The computer is an ideal way to work with symbols and pictures. Sound, both "real" and synthetic can be easily used along with symbols and pictures to create communication tools. The computer can make it easy for staff to create symbol based learning and communication activities using the readily available computer versions of standard symbol systems such as Rebus, PCS or Makaton. Simple communication devices such as the BIGmack can be used to help a pupil join in classroom and daily activities.