What is assistive technology?
According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association, assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.”
To put it simply, assistive technology helps individuals with disabilities complete tasks and live a more independent life. Some assistive technology is used for mobility purposes, such as wheelchairs and prosthetics, whereas others are used for communication and accessibility, like speech-to-text software and screen readers.
As the neurodivergent population continues to increase, it’s important that schools are equipped with the assistive technology they need to provide an equitable and inclusive learning environment for all students. Neurodivergent students, specifically autistic students, tend to benefit from assistive technology that provides visual, sensory, motor, or communication support.
Why is assistive technology important?
Assistive technology enhances the lives of autistic students by:
Students need to know that they matter to their teachers, principals, etc. By providing assistive technology, schools reinforce the message that they want all students to feel a sense of belonging. Assistive technology allows districts to offer a personalized experience while also removing barriers that could otherwise keep students from participating in certain activities.
Neurodivergent students deserve access to the same information and opportunities as neurotypical students. Unfortunately, sometimes there are internal and/or external barriers that prevent this from happening. For example, many schools have inclusion classrooms where autistic students and neurotypical students receive instruction in the same classroom. Autistic students who struggle with processing information may have difficulty taking notes while the teacher talks. Speech-to-text software solves this issue by transforming the teacher’s verbal speech into written words.
Assistive technology empowers autistic students because they can complete tasks and navigate challenges without assistance from another person. Sticking to the speech-to-text example, autistic students who use the technology do not have to ask the teacher to repeat information, rely on someone else to write their notes, or miss the information altogether.
6 Common Assistive Technologies for Autistic Students
Speech-to-text software is commonly used by neurodivergent and neurotypical people. When someone speaks into the microphone, the software translates their spoken words into written text. Apps like Google Docs have speech-to-text built-in, making it a great tool for writing papers, journaling, etc. Students can also use speech-to-text to turn lectures into written text that they can revisit at a later time.
Text-to-speech software works by reading written text aloud. This is especially useful for autistic students who may struggle with reading or processing information. This can also help nonverbal and selectively-speaking students communicate with others.
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication Device (AAC)
AAC is the umbrella term used to describe a variety of communication devices for nonverbal selectively-speaking individuals. Some AAC devices include pictures and symbols with pre-recorded messages that users can tap, while others are simply notecards with pictures and words (such as PEC boards). The most advanced AACs use eye-tracking technology to determine the picture the user wants to choose and then convert it to speech. In Ava, our selectively-speaking character Lior uses an AAC device to communicate with the other characters using pictures.
Captions allow students to read the audio while they listen to it. This is useful for students who have hearing impairments or sensory issues that make listening to audio difficult. Closed-captions are a prime example of how making education accessible for neurodivergent students improves education for everyone. By intentionally choosing to play videos with closed captions, students can absorb the information visually and audibly.
- Screen readers
Screen readers go beyond translating text to speech. They also dictate buttons, links, and symbols to help students navigate the page. It’s important to choose laptops, tablets, computers, and other devices with screen reader technology.
- Noise-canceling headphones
This simple assistive technology can make a world of difference for autistic students with sensory sensitivities. Traditional classrooms are full of distractions that can lead to sensory overload. When a student experiences sensory overload, it’s difficult for them to concentrate and can often make them feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Noise-canceling headphones reduce distractions, so students can focus and better regulate their senses.
Assistive technologies are powerful tools for promoting inclusivity, accessibility, and independence. By investing in assistive technology, schools can empower students and open the door to new opportunities. The autistic population is steadily increasing, so it’s wise for schools to be proactive in obtaining the technology their students need to thrive.