By Tamar Varnai, MA, BCBA
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder affecting communication, social skills, and behavior which has been growing exponentially over the past 20 years. Diagnosis of the disorder is at an all-time high with a prevalence of 1 in 68 children overall, and and 1 in 42 boys. ASD often causes qualitative impairments in social interaction and communication as well as restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. A low threshold for frustration tolerance combined with difficulty communicating effectively can also lead to aggression towards oneself and others. Individuals with autism are also at high risk of having severe anxiety with everyday activities, as well as for events that are less frequent such as going to the doctor or participating in holidays and vacations.
ASD is known as a spectrum disorder because children diagnosed with ASD may have a wide range of skills, falling on a spectrum between severely impaired and delayed in all areas, which is often is described as low-functioning, and mildly impaired and delayed in only some areas. Children who are mildly delayed, or high-functioning, often have delays in pragmatic language and social skills. They may also have difficulty with emotion regulation and understanding emotions of others. Their academic skills can often be age-appropriate in most subject areas, though some areas can be quite difficult for high-functioning children, especially if the target skills are not concrete but rather conceptual.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to understanding behavior and how it is affected by the environment. Currently, ABA therapy is the only research-based methodology proven effective for children with Autism, and is endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General. An ABA intervention as a program should be designed and conducted by individuals with ABA training and under the supervision of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). BCBA’s and other qualified individuals are licensed by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), an internationally recognized ABA certification authority.
With the help and collaboration of BCBAs, many parents find that using the principles of ABA can help shape compliance and build skills in their children with autism. One of the first goals of ABA is to build a positive association between the individual with autism, the caregiver, and the teaching environment. Essential components of ABA therapy include building routines and consistency into daily life, using assistive communication methods and visual supports, consistent consequential strategies, and modifying the environment for the benefit of the individual with autism. The development and increased access to technology in homes and classrooms have led to an increase in technology usage to teach individuals with autism. Various technologies and apps are easily accessed by teachers, parents, and students themselves, and which target a wide range of skills, as well as track student progress.
Technology for Program Maintenance and Data Collection
Educators are using technology in their practice more and more. Many ABA therapists and BCBAs travel between students’ homes and schools, making technology a key component to their work. Carrying a tablet or laptop with digital materials and data logs is certainly easier than carrying a suitcase full of tangible items and several large data binders. There are numerous apps available that will track and maintain student data neatly and confidentially. One such program is Catalyst by Data Finch. Catalyst allows therapists to input program goals for their students, collect various types of data, and note the prompts used. The data can be automatically graphed and emailed to team members. The program also allows therapists to record sessions so it can be reviewed later by other team members. Catalyst requires a monthly subscription fee for full usage. Another similar technology developer is Operant Systems Inc., who have created several different iPad apps which allow you to input student goals, easily record data during sessions, and create graphs. They have options for a monthly subscription for their full program, or a one-time fee for a smaller, but still very functional data logbook.
Technology for Direct Instruction
Many educators are also incorporating technology directly into their teaching, using programs with digital materials and even programs that provide the instruction directly to the student. These programs not only allow the therapists to have more materials at their disposal, but also allow them to share the technology with families and caregivers to increase the amount of instruction time a student with autism can receive in any given week. While an ABA provider might spend only 5 hours a week with a particular child, the family or caregiver can utilize use the technology to provide additional teaching hours during the remainder of the week.
There are many apps on the market to which target academic, language, and social skills, as well as apps with social stories and video modeling to teach a child with autism about new situations and how to respond when exposed to them. Most apps will target one skill or domain, so educators often need many apps in order to target all the necessary skills. Some examples of good singular teaching apps can be found from Hamaguchi Apps, Mobile Education Store, and Different Roads to Learning. The SeeTouchLearn app, has a database of flashcards – some free, some requiring a purchase – which can help reduce the amount of materials a traveling therapist needs to carry.
DrOmnibus is a program developer that is changing the way technology applies ABA to teach children with autism. The DrOmnibus app is a computer- or tablet-based program that incorporates the main components of ABA into teaching various receptive skills within the same app, streamlining the number of apps an educator needs to use. The program offers numerous games, each targeting a specific skill group. Each game begins with a pretest to gather a baseline for the skill and targets of that game, and uses the results of the baseline to tailor the teaching trials to target the skills the student needs to learn.
The teaching trials increase in difficulty as the student begins to answer independently and incorporates positive reinforcement for correct answers in the form of virtual tokens. Using virtual tokens allows for easier generalization into non-technology based sessions where physical tokens are very often used as reinforcement, which is a key component of ABA. The tokens and final reward of fireworks are highly motivating for students, given that most students with autism are very visual learners and enjoy visual reinforcement.
DrOmnibus Pro allows educators to grant access to families and then can assign homework to students to complete between ABA sessions. Their technology also allows teachers to digitally track student progress within the app. The program offers the ability to target several skill areas including receptive identification of objects, colors, shapes, emotions, and more. They also have several games for teaching sound identification, which is a unique feature that most other ABA apps do not offer.
Each game targets a specific category, though targets within the category are intermixed within the game. For example, there is a game for teaching receptive identification of animals where the student will begin with a pretest to establish a baseline. Then the program will present any animals that were unknown during the pretest. It might begin only with one target, presenting that target in an increasingly larger field. Prompts are used as necessary and when the student begins to respond independently for a given target, another target will be added with the original target for discrimination training.
Another complete computer and app based program is called TeachTown. TeachTown offers ABA-based programs for children with autism ranging in age from preschool (ages 4-5) through teenager years. The programs have the ability to target academic skills along with social skills. The program will begins with an overall assessment of current skill level to gain a baseline before beginning instructional sessions. The teacher then has the option to allow the program to generate progressive lessons or to input specific goals to target for each session. All skills are intermixed during the session, allowing the student to complete an entire session of varying target skills without having to move in and out of different lessons during the session. The program incorporates reinforcement and prompting, which are two key components of ABA. The main educator can grant access to families so they can also use TeachTown at home. The the program keeps track of data and graphs student progress.
Boardmaker Instructional Systems provides yet another method of incorporating technology into teaching students with autism. Boardmaker is most well-known for its computer disk that allows educators to create visual prompts for language development. It started with the need to create visual “talking boards” for low-functioning children who were using assistive technology to communicate. Over the years, Boardmaker has increased its capacity for creating teaching tools and now offers the ability to work online, through their website, and create interactive activities that can be played on a computer or tablet. This technology requires a monthly subscription. With a professional subscription, an educator can assign different assignments to different students and track student progress.
Within classrooms, schools and teachers are creating class-wide instruction and group lessons using SMART technology – either with SMART Boards or SMART Tables. SMART technology in the classroom allows teachers to access the Internet, files from the teachers computers, and use SMART software for interactive and engaging lessons. SMART Tables, often found in classrooms for younger children, allow smaller children to work hands-on at a height they can reach. Many classrooms are also incorporating interactive lessons as well as independent work assignments on tablets. Research has shown Active Student Responding (ASR), often used in ABA classrooms, to be highly effective. ASR increases student opportunities to respond which leads to faster growth and progress towards goals. Tablets and other similar technology allow teachers to employ ASR in a way that also will collect and analyze student response data. This type of technology helps teachers spend more time planning lessons and creating necessary supports for students who need them, rather than collecting and graphing student data on their own.
Applying technology to ABA programs for teaching children with autism is becoming more and more prevalent and useful. Since the technology can be utilized by educators, as well as parents and caregivers, the development of technology specifically for ABA programs will continue to grow and adapt to the needs of the autism population.
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Tamar Varnai, MA, BCBA, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst originally from New York. She received her Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Columbia University, Teacher’s College in New York and has been working with students with special needs for over 20 years. She specializes in working with children on the Autism Spectrum, as well as shaping behavior and teaching language and social skills to students of all ages. Tamar has worked in special education and inclusion classrooms and supervised home-based ABA programs. She has extensive experience working with children and teenagers, ages 1 year through 16 years and has worked in several countries outside of the United States and throughout Europe.
Tamar provides direct teaching services individually or in group settings, educational and behavioral assessments, program development and supervision, language and social skills instruction, as well as trainings for parents and teachers.
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