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Computers and Autism Spectrum Disorders - July 2008

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Computers and Autism Spectrum Disorders

By: Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA and Manya Vaupel, MA, BCBA

With recent advances in computer technology, it is no surprise that more and more people are beginning to show interest in taking advantage of the latest technology to provide more sophisticated treatment options for children with autism. Many researchers have looked at computers as a possible clinical tool[1] and although much more research is needed, computers look to be a promising possibility for teaching children with autism[2].

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a class of brain disorders which profoundly impair the development of language, nonverbal communication, social skills, and leisure or play skills. ASD is present early in life, most likely at birth, and has lifelong effects on learning and behavior. Children with autism often have good attention spans for things that they are interested in, but not for activities outside of their often restricted interests[3]. Autism affects about 1 out of 166 children[4] which is more than any other childhood disorder and is more prevalent than cancer and most other common medical conditions. This disorder costs families, schools, and the government millions of dollars every year and it is often difficult to find treatment. Even in large cities, where treatment is more readily available than in rural areas, wait lists can be 6 months, 2 years long to receive intervention services.

As children with autism tend to attend well to things that interest them, and because children with autism often respond well to treatments that use visual supports, computers are a logical choice for intervention. Research in this area has been encouraging. For instance, in one study, social problem solving was taught to children with autism using computerized social stories[5]. Other researchers have use computers to teach language to children with autism[6]. The exciting aspect of these and other studies is not only that skills can be taught using the computer, but in many of these studies, skills were shown to generalize to the natural environment[7]. Also, several studies have demonstrated that children with autism may actually learn faster using a computer than using traditional direct instruction[8]. It also seems that in many cases, children with autism are more motivated and attend better to the computer than to direct instruction[9].

In a recently published study[10], children with autism and children with Down syndrome were able to learn language, social, and education skills using a computer assisted instructional program with a significant increase in skills from baseline pretests to post-tests. Similar to other studies using computers, it was also found that children with autism were better able to attend while using the computer and increases in language, social interaction, and enjoyment were observed on the computer vs. play sessions with the parent. Decreases in inappropriate behaviors were also observed from baseline to the computer sessions and to the off-computer activities with the parents.

Despite the promise of computers in treatment programs for children with autism, there are some who may have concerns about using computers to teach these children. Most of this concern comes from the fact that children with autism are known to have language and social deficits and some people believe that putting a child in front of the computer may block language and social opportunities. However, there is little research to support this theory. In fact, most research, even for typically developing children, shows that computers do not negatively affect language or socialization.[11] In fact, some studies have shown increased language and socialization among children when using the computer.[12] In addition, several research studies have shown that young children who use the computer demonstrate improved cognitive skills and are more likely to do well in school. [13] Most of the negative findings on computers and young children relate to video games with violence, not educational or appropriate entertainment software.

Whether you like them or don't, computers are now an important part of education programs for children. Children are now required by their teachers to use the computer for research, writing, math, and other activities. Computer learning is introduced at a very young age and it is not at all uncommon to see computers being used even in preschool classrooms. However, children are also taught with their peers in the classroom and in other types of environments and few would dispute that balance of these activities is important for quality education. Children with autism may benefit even more from computer-assisted instruction than typically developing children but more research is needed in this area.

Regardless of the benefits of computer-assisted learning, it is important that children with autism also have balance in their learning opportunities. Teaching the child in the natural environment and giving the child opportunities to interact with peers cannot be replaced by a computer. One solution is for the computer program to emphasize the importance of doing off-computer learning activities by including printable activities which can be done with the child to teach skills in the natural environment and to build the social relationships between the parent (or educator) and the child.

The use of computers for intervention for ASD may have other benefits not yet addressed in the research. For instance, computers allow for fast, accurate, and detailed data collection and analysis which can assist schools in meeting mandated requirements for data collection. They are also a valuable tool for teaching motor skills (e.g. using the mouse), increasing attention skills, and facilitating language and other skills. Also, although there is not research on this to date, many professionals and parents report that computers are an excellent sources for improving sensory and emotional regulation for children. This could be a result of the calming influence computers have on these children, the motivating aspects of the computer, or from the clarity of what the computer expects from the child. And, similar to how computers have made communication easier for much of our society through e-mail, the Internet, and instant messaging, computers may help address the much-needed solution for helping people working with children with ASD to communicate with one another. Often times, teachers, parents, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, developmental pediatricians, behavioral therapists, etc. have difficulty communicating with one another about the child's intervention program. Even with recent advances in computer technology, most of these "teams" still rely on binders full of session notes and data that is rarely looked at by the majority of the team, or e-mails are sent out that are often lost or forgotten in the sea of other e-mails. This lack of communication among team members often leads to confusing or conflicting approaches which may cause more harm for the child than good. This can also lead to very intense and confusing meetings around the child's education program as everyone seems to be doing something different with the child. One way to address this problem is to include with the program a communication system which allows all members of the child's team to look at the data, see what the child is working on, and read session notes from each other.

Other possible benefits of using computers for children with autism include increasing independence for older, higher-functioning children through the use of calendars, task lists, and other visual supports for helping these children (and adults) to better manage their days. Computers may also help to increase communication opportunities for people with autism. For instance, a program that teaches narrative language skills will better help the child to recount events and stories. In addition, using e-mail, structured chat rooms, and Internet messaging, people with ASD may feel more confident to interact with their peers and this may give them an opportunity to be more successful socially. The possibilities for research and treatment for computers and ASD are many and hopefully, this new trend will allow more people to have accessible and affordable treatment tools.


  1. Parkin, A. (2006). Computers in clinical practice: Applying experience from child psychiatry. British Medical Journal, 321, 615-618.
  2. Goldsmith, T. & LeBlanc, L. (2004). Use of technology in interventions with children with autism. Journal of Early Intensive Behavior Intervention, 1(2), 166-178.
  3. Wing, L. (2001). The Autistic Spectrum: A Parent's Guide to Understanding and Helping Your Child. Berkeley, California: Ulysses Press.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. No longer available at their website. Accessed December 10, 2002.
  5. Bernard-Opitz, V., Sriram, N., & Nakhoda-Sapuan, S. (2001). Enhancing social problem solving in children with autism and normal children through computer-assisted instruction. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(4), 377-384.
  6. Bosseler, A., & Massaro, D. (2003). Development and evaluation of a computeranimated tutor for vocabulary and language learning in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(6), 653-672.
  7. Hetzroni, O.E. & Tannous, J. (2004). Effects of a computer-based intervention program on the communicative functions of children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 95-113.
  8. Williams, C., Wright, B., Callaghan, G., & Coughlan, B. (2002). Do children with autism learn to read more readily by computer assisted instruction or traditional book methods?: A pilot study. Autism, 6(1), 71-91.
  9. Moore, M. & Calvert, S. (2000). Brief Report: Vocabulary acquisition for children with autism: Teacher or computer instruction. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(4), 359-362.
  10. Whalen, C., Liden, L., Ingersoll, B., Dallaire, E., & Liden, S., (2006). Behavioral improvements associated with computer-assisted instruction for children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Speech and Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis (in press).
  11. Kelly, K.L. & Schorger, J.R. (2001). "Let's play 'puters": Expressive language use at the computer center. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 125- 138.
  12. Freeman, N.K. & Somerindyke, J. (2001). Social play at the computer: Preschoolers scaffold and support peers' computer competence. Information Technology in Childhood Education, 203-213.
  13. Haugland, S.W. (1992). The effect of computer software on preschool children's developmental gains. Journal of Computing in Childhood Education, 3(1), 15-30.

This Month's Featured Vendor: Teach Town/Animated Speech Co., and Spectrum Circles

Special thanks to Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA for contributing this month's article. Christina is the President and Chief Science Officer for both Teachtown, Inc. and Animated Speech Co, which develop evidence-based software products for children with autism spectrum disorders, hearing impairments, language problems and other developmental delays. Please visit their websites at http://www.teachtown.com, and http://www.animatedspeech.net.

You can also visit Chris' Autism blog for news and the latest thoughts, commentary and analysis on autism spectrum disorders


Tags: July 2008 Newsletter Social OT Autism Down Syndrome Article