The broad benefits possible through the use of these applications will come primarily through your ASD child’s social interaction with others. The technology itself, if not used with activities that promote social interaction, can lead to further social isolation if the child is left alone with the computer. The applications we have developed aim to facilitate social interaction and improve its quality.
Anyone can participate with your ASD child in the activities. Your child could work with another ASD or typically developing peer, a parent, an educator, a staff member, or in larger groups of any combination. The multitouch tablet can track up to four finger touches at one time, so that is the only formal limit on how many people can participate at once. In our experience, pairing low-functioning children with another low-functioning child was very difficult. The low-functioning children we saw showed vast improvements when they participate with or were encouraged by people they were comfortable with, like an aide they saw often. For some of the applications, it can be difficult to pair children who are very different in age or skills, such as the puzzle application.
In our visits to an elementary school and an afterschool program aimed at middle school aged children, we have noticed certain elements that worked to make the activities more successful:
It is best to have a calm, relatively quiet neutral environment. Many children showed better attention when there were fewer people in the room. In our visits, we found that a child facing a window looking out to children playing could be taxing on their ability to focus. It is helpful to use a space that is not strongly associated with another activity, like a kitchen is with eating food, for example, as the child might have a preconceived set of expectations.
Create a safe space
Because many ASD children dislike unknown outcomes, it is important for them to feel comfortable with a technology before they are asked to do more challenging tasks. Creating a safe space in which they can comfortably explore includes first familiarizing them with the technology, perhaps letting them simply experiment with it. It means that they will not be judged negatively for their actions, with plenty of praise and encouragement given. Sometimes it helps to allow a child to work with only one other adult, without others watching on.
Model the activity
It is helpful to show the child how the activity works while they are not yet touching the computer, standing in front of them showing them the screen. Once they start interacting with the computer, we found it was much harder to capture their attention.
Give yes/no options
Writing "yes" and "no" on a sheet of paper and phrasing questions so that they can be answered in this way, pointing to each option as you say it, can increase a child’s sense of being in control and can bring out preferences that a nonverbal or shy child might otherwise have trouble expressing themselves.
Provide the right amount of structure
Some of the children we have seen gravitate towards rigid rules. For one of our activities, children take turns choosing musical notes to compose a piece. Since there is no external bound on how long a turn can be, we gave them a loose guideline of choosing about six notes per turn. However, we do not strictly enforce this rule. Through modeling the activities, as described above, we also set loose expectations about how we hope the child will interact. Providing the right amount of structure can help a child think less rigidly and increase his creativity, but sets enough guidelines that a skill like turn-taking can be internalized more naturally. Structure can help narrow down the uncertainties of social interaction, something that those diagnosed with ASD struggle with. While providing firm rules may help a child’s performance, these rules may also discourage flexible thinking or hinder social fluidity.