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How People With Autism Use the Computer
Autism has been mistakenly described as a disorder that traps the person and the mind in a solitary world. We now know that this is not true. While autism can give rise to problems in social interaction, communication, and cognitive and motor difficulties, there’s so much that assistive technology can do to help people with autism live functional lives.
Computers are one of the most adaptable assistive technology devices available for people with autism. Contrary to what many people think, computers are perfect for people with autism because of the predictability of its responses and its capability to conduct communication through symbols and synthesized speech.
There are several adaptive computer hardware and software available which could help people with autism use the computer more effectively.
People with autism often have difficulty grasping or manipulating objects, such as a mouse. A touch screen allows people with autism to navigate and interact with the computer by replacing mouse actions with a tap or touch on the screen.
Trackballs are also great alternatives for a mouse. Instead of having to grasp and drag a mouse across a mouse pad, trackballs use a stationary rolling ball to move the cursor around. This design gives people with autism greater control and helps them to position the cursor more accurately.
A regular keyboard with its small, numerous keys would be difficult for someone with limited fine motor control to manipulate. Its layout can also be confusing for someone who is easily distracted and has poor organizational skills.
Some alternative keyboards that are particularly useful for people with autism make use of large, well-spaced, color-coded keys. Naturally, large keys are easier to press and the colors help with easier identification. For example, some keyboards may have the consonants colored differently from vowels.
Expanded membrane keyboards are also particularly helpful for people with autism. This type of keyboard is larger than the standard keyboard and can be programmed to meet each user’s needs. An example of one such keyboard uses different overlays to allow for customization by changing the way it looks and functions. For instance, a user can easily type, enter numbers, move the mouse cursor, and execute commands just by pushing various locations on an overlay. It can be further simplified by using switches which can be set to act as left or right mouse buttons, double click, space bar, or arrow keys.
Most people with autism find using standard word processors easier than handwriting. Some would benefit from word processors that have on-screen words or picture banks to help form their thoughts.
Augmentative Communication (AC) Systems
People with autism typically process visual information better than auditory information. It is easier for them to understand what you want to say if you use pictures, facial cues, hand gestures, and body language together with verbal instructions. Augmentative communication makes use of this visual learning style to help people with autism express themselves by using pictures, symbols, or drawings.
Computer-based communication tools are one of the most ideal augmentative communication systems. Symbols and pictures can be used along with sounds and synthetic speech to create a communication tool which can be particularly useful for teaching children with autism.
Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs)
Stand alone communication devices known as voice output communication aids (VOCAs) can be an alternative for computer-based communication tools. They are often easy to operate, such as pushing a button to activate pre-recorded messages tailor fitted for its user. Each touch pad contains a visual representation in words, drawings, or photos that represent the content of each recording.
VOCAs can be used by people with autism to express their wants if they are verbally unable to do so. For instance, a picture of a glass would represent the VOCA user’s desire to drink. When pressed, the recorded message would say “I’m thirsty”. This easily lets other people know what they want without having to rely on grunts or gestures.
Assistive technology is helping to break the long-standing myth that autism imprisons people in a solitary world. With the help of assistive technology, people with autism are proving to the world that they are just as intelligent, loving, and sociable as anyone else.