Technology and autism: Different for girls?

Over the past two years, there has been an increasing focus on the nature and needs of women and girls with autism.
Carol Allen is a senior education advisor for technology and inclusion for the Hartlepool Borough Council in the U.K.

My first visit to FETC in 2019 was initially overwhelming—the size and scope of the conference added to the sheer number of delegates made it slightly daunting to a “newbie” from the UK.

However, very quickly the sheer energy and enthusiasm of all involved made it clear that the whole ensemble from the expo hall, through keynotes and workshops to the myriad of delegates, presenters and those representing companies were all there to generate discussion, collaboration and a genuine atmosphere of sharing expertise, ideas and practice.

Why mention this first impression? Well, for someone with autism, the sheer complexity of navigating a large, new space combined with sensory overload could be a huge barrier to participation.

If we think about how students with autism experience this daily in our schools, it’s easy to see that there can be significant environmental issues acting as barriers to learning before we even consider the nature of instruction or access to the learning objectives.

Over the past two years, there has been an increasing focus on the nature and needs of women and girls with autism. Technology has so much to offer this population, some not gender-specific such as the use of visuals; the ability to create social stories or easy personalization of learning objectives to match special interests.

It is proving particularly useful when supporting the social development of young girls who seek to find an understanding of social norms online.

Information suggests that girls with autism are much better at masking whereby the person attempts to conform with what they perceive as acceptable and to suppress behaviors that to them might be comforting, for example, stimming.

For example, they will often acquire, practice and learn scripts to appear part of the crowd, albeit frequently a quiet part. This helps them create a safety net when dealing with an unfamiliar or overwhelming event or situation. Even when this is done successfully, however, it is not without a cost.
Many girls with autism face high levels of anxiety as they attempt to interpret and learn how to be part of the social world. We are steadily gathering evidence of the impact this has on mental health and well-being.

How can technology help girls with autism?

Consider how to use these tools to make school and other environments more familiar and less overwhelming for girls with autism:

  • Make an interactive floorplan of the school. ThingLink offers so many educational opportunities. Here’s a useful blog on how to use ThingLink to help make such a floorplan. Of course, it can be personalized to match a student’s individual needs.
  • Use virtual reality to provide a walkthrough experience. The price of 360-degree cameras has become far more accessible; two suggestions would be the Ricoh Theta range which are easy to use, as are the Go Pro Fusions which can be easily wheelchair mounted. Of course, it is now possible to make 360 landscapes with the phone in your pocket or by using free browser options such as this from Google.

Whatever process and resources you choose, the opportunity to provide a personalized, reality-based and informative guide of your school or other environments that girls with autism can explore and experience prior to attending can have an extremely positive impact on reducing the anxiety of being in a new, unfamiliar place.

Consider the sensory complexity of a busy environment and how it can also be a barrier to participation. We are used to people sitting in social spaces looking at their phones or with earphones in use. In addition to identifying “quiet” spots on our floorplan, a selection of self-regulation activities including technology that students can use to self-soothe can help girls with autism at times during the day when socializing proves challenging.

At FETC 2020, I’ll be exploring a much greater range of ideas as to how technology can be used to support access to learning and life for students with autism. In particular, we will look at how we might need to re-frame our interventions and responses for girls and women.

Why not come along, join in and hopefully take away some ideas and resources to support your practice? It would be fab to meet you!

Carol Allen is a senior education advisor for technology and inclusion for the Hartlepool Borough Council in the U.K. She will be a featured presenter at DA’s FETC 2020.

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