This article was inspired by my work with children on the autism spectrum, specifically African- American children. I have noticed a great deal of dependency on technology (tablets and smartphones) as a primary tool for the students that I see. This article looks at the adverse effects that this dependence on technology can have for children who have issues with relatedness. It is an opinion piece based on my experiences.
The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. It is a rare occasion when an initiative generates the same results or anticipated outcomes when put into practice as it does in theory. From the heterogeneous classroom model to extreme standardized testing, many may agree that what often seems innovative and progressive in both thought and on paper doesn’t always play out as anticipated in practice, especially when the affected subjects are human beings. Perhaps the greatest example of “great in theory, much to be desired in practice” is the dependency on technology by students with special needs, more specifically, students with needs in the areas of social development, reciprocal communication and sensory/motor development. Technology, specifically tablets and smartphones, have opened up a world of possibilities for children who require more concrete single-step access to instructional and therapeutic materials via technology.
By replacing the computer mouse with the touch of a finger, a student who may have avoided using a computer because of sensory-related issues may be more inclined to utilize technology, providing themselves with an array of apps that are designed to support everything from communication-based disorders to fine motor delays. Yes, the tablet and smartphone were/are the answer to the prayers of every special education teacher, developmental therapist and parent/guardian of a child with special needs. What could possibly go wrong?
As with most progressive and innovative ideas, the principles are created to act as opposing alternatives to its predecessors—completely rejecting the “old” and placing all hopes and resources into the “new.” Physical books are replaced by e-books. Hard interlocking puzzles that promote visual motor skills, grasping and problem-solving are replaced by digital puzzles that can be manipulated with the swipe of a finger. Social skill apps take the place of a person teaching reciprocal communication. Although apps such as those described can be beneficial for children, the problem arises when tablets, smartphones and apps become the primary tool instead of one many tools used to support the development of children. A digital puzzle can promote cognitive thinking skills, but it falls short in the areas of hand manipulation and sensory. Children, particularly children with sensory-avoidant and sensory-seeking needs, social needs and fine motor delays benefit from touching, holding and manipulating real objects. This observation holds significantly true for children with relatedness issues, as it pertains to their ability to engage in real-life/real-world experiences, with real objects and, more importantly, their ability to interact with other people. When technology is the primary tool used to support children with relatedness issues, it can have an adverse and counterproductive effect.
Many children with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis generally have difficulty relating to people and real-life situations. Primary use of a tablet or smartphone to support and teach skills may cause children with an ASD diagnosis to slip further away from reality as their comfort and dependency on technology increases.
I speak from experience when I say that it is a heartbreaking sight to see a child effortlessly complete tasks using a tablet/smartphone but struggle significantly when required to transfer those skills mastered using technology when faced with the real-world equivalent of that skill. The primary goal of special education and therapy is inclusion. That inclusion may come in the form of a general education classroom placement or a less restrictive classroom environment. However, it always includes the ability to function and be included as independently as possible in general society. As special educators, therapists, and parents of children with special needs, it is our responsibility to help our students/children acquire the skills that will increase their chances of functioning as independently as they can in general society. Although I do see the importance and usefulness of utilizing technology as part of a child’s education/treatment program, a tablet should be used in conjunction with real objects and experiences, not in place of. In my role as a developmental therapist, I often create materials and situations that replicate the apps that I used in my sessions. This supplementation provides my students with the opportunity to transfer the skills that they have mastered using technology to real objects, materials and situations, which will provide them with the skills to function in the real world that they live in.
Dissatisfaction with the “old” is often the mother to the “new.” Dissatisfaction can be positive, as it allows us to become progressive in our thoughts and practices, and it drives us to strive for better. However, dissatisfaction can also cause us to reject everything associated with older practices, even those practices that prove to be beneficial to meeting our goals. When planning for your students/children, think about the goals that you wish for them to accomplish. When selecting the materials/activities that you will use to accomplish these goals, consider whether your choices will increase your students’ ability to transfer the skills learned into real practical situations and help them to become as functional and independent as they can be. Try not to allow the latest trends to guide your planning and selection of materials. Instead, use the knowledge that you have of your students/children to make choices that will push them closer to reaching their full potential and individual level of independence.