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									Autism and Computing
This factsheet gives some practical suggestions on how someone with autism may
benefit from using a computer.

This factsheet is part of AbilityNet’s free Advice and Information service. If you have
any questions at all about anything in this Factsheet, or any other aspect of assistive
technology, please contact us.
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What is autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the
way a person communicates and relates to people around them. People with autism
can often have accompanying learning disabilities.

Asperger’s syndrome is a condition at the higher functioning end of the autistic
spectrum. People with Asperger’s syndrome do not usually have the accompanying
learning disabilities associated with autism.

How can a computer help
While the Autistic Spectrum is very broad continuum, presenting a wide range of
difficulties and needs, the computer can be helpful in a number of areas. Anecdotally,
those supporting individuals with Autism often report the positive affect it can have on
motivation, concentration and interaction. So, why might a computer help? Colin
Hardy, in his book ICT for All (2000) discussed some ideas;

      Individuals on the autistic spectrum are often unable or unwilling to participate in
       situations which rely upon social or verbal interaction. The computer may offer
       an attractive alternative. Specific software resources can help with an
       understanding of body language and to teach social skills, one example of this,
       “Mind Reading” is detailed at the end of this factsheet.
      The computer monitor offers a less threatening focus for attention when working
       with others. Often, individuals with ASD or Aspergers are seen as rude, because
       they will talk at people, rather than with them. Those with ASD often find they are
       able to converse with a computer or another person by e-mail more easily than
       with another person.
      Graphics and simple drawing programs offer a good starting point, offering
       immediate feedback and the opportunity to “undo” errors. Word processing
       applications offer a similar opportunity to undo mistakes and to experiment with
       the way things are laid out.
      Word processors offer a safe and controllable environment in which the person
       on the autistic spectrum can play, experiment, explore, be creative and make
      Games programs offer a good opportunity for the individual to excel alongside
       others, offering the potential to build relationships with others. The computer can
       therefore be a useful tool in encouraging co-operative working and dialogue
       through a common interest that can extend beyond games play.
      Users with ASD may find it difficult to cope with various and changing demands
       of the environment around them. The computer can offer the opportunity,
       through the internet and through multimedia applications and programs to
       experience the world around them within clear boundaries. Certain commercially
       available software packages, such as The Out and About series (SEMERC),
       may reinforces appropriate social behaviour patterns in a safe computer based

Adapting the Computer
A number of changes can be made to the standard computer system that would make it
easier to use. Examples of the changes that can be made can be found on the “My

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Updated April 2012                                                                 Page 2
Computer My Way” part of the AbilityNet website. Additionally, skill sheets can be found
on the AbilityNet website that explain how to make changes to the mouse, keyboard
and display options. For some users who have motor control difficulties, a wide range
of alternative keyboards and mice can be used. Consider a range of mice, trackballs
large and smaller keyboards with and without guards. More information about these
devices can be found elsewhere on the AbilityNet website.

Writing and recording
Some individuals with ASD will find word processing on the computer easier than
recording by hand. Some individuals with ASD or Aspergers seem to struggle with
handwriting, although why this may be is unclear. For some, the keyboard is easier to
use than a pen. For a user who is not generally keen to converse, the computer may
provide a more motivating medium in which to communicate. Word processors offer a
safe environment to experiment in, as a computer does not react in the same way as
another person and will always offer a “logical” reaction.

The computer will automate many tasks, helping individuals to complete certain tasks
quickly and easily; the production of a graph for instance. This can be useful where
individuals have poor motor skills, may be poorly organised or are obsessed by
attention to detail. Words may not be enough for some users with ASD, and the
additional support of symbols and images may be useful in encouraging writing.

Providing a writing frame can be useful for some users with ASD. Individuals often have
difficulty with organising their thoughts and the writing process itself and there are a
number of software titles which may support this. For example, mind-mapping software
can help to quickly get a number of ideas down quickly without worrying about structure
or order.

Giving an individual a starting point can be useful to help overcome the ’blank page‘-
this could easily be a list of words with key areas or phrases. Equally, for some users, a
sequence of pictures or symbols alongside text can be helpful. Programs such as
Clicker, Writing with Symbols, Wordbar, Textease and Granada Smart- Bank all offer
wordbank support which may support the user as a planning and organisational aid.

A neat printed copy can be more satisfying than poor handwriting. Mistakes can be
more easily corrected. For those with difficulties with reading or spelling, speech
feedback can help with motivation and the self checking of work. A number of free and
commercially available text readers and talking word processors can help in this area.

In some cases, the computer can be very helpful in motivating and channelling a user’s
interaction with the computer, particularly for younger users. Content can then be
added or adapted which will particularly motivate the user.

Cognitive difficulties
Some users with greater needs may find some simple software useful in developing an
understanding of cause and effect. These simple programs can encourage interaction
with a simple input device such as a switch or touch screen. Interaction is rewarded by
something happening on the computer. The best examples of this sort of software will

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Updated April 2012                                                                Page 3
allow the development of more complex interaction and of different types of reward to
suit the user. Care needs to be taken, to avoid such software developing repetitive
behaviours with the computer.

Many examples of ready-made software packages are available from special needs
software suppliers. Look out for switch accessible packages. Most software can be
used with a touch screen, but ensure that objects on the screen are large enough to be
touched easily with a finger. Programs such as Clicker will allow you to develop very
simple cause and effect activities yourself, that can be activated by switch, touch
screen mouse pointer or keyboard. At the same time it will provide scope to allow the
users to move onto more complex tasks, including word processing.

Some users with ASD may struggle with the concept of what a keyboard or mouse is
for. A user may be an incredibly agile and fast mouse user for example, but has no
interest or desire to use a keyboard. In this case a number of hardware or software
solutions may help to overcome these difficulties. A concept keyboard, such as the
Intellikeys Overlay keyboard can be used to reduce the number of keys normally found
on the standard keyboard. If a user has particular strengths with the mouse, but is
reluctant to use the keyboard, consider using an on-screen keyboard to support writing.

A touch monitor can in some cases be cognitively easier for a user with ASD to use
than a keyboard or on-screen keyboard. For some people it may be more appropriate
to use a tablet computer to work on. AbilityNet has a separate leaflet called “Tablet
Computers” which explains the subject in more detail.

Other users may find word prediction helpful in supporting spelling or speeding up the
input rate. Most word prediction programs are supported by speech and the ability to
customise the nature of how and which words are predicted.

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Updated April 2012                                                              Page 4
Useful Contacts

The National Autistic Society
393 City Road, London, EC1V 1NE
Tel:    0845 070 4004
Web: www.nas.org.uk

The National Handwriting Association

Useful References
Hardy et al   Autism and ICT (2002) David Fulton Publishers

Hardy          ICT for All (2000) David Fulton Publishers

The comprehensive website of Dinah Taylor and Mike Lesser

Mind reading
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 116 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JB.
Tel: 020 7833 2307. Fax: +44 (020) 7837 2917

Web: www.abilitynet.org.uk. Tel: 0800 269545. Email enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk
Updated April 2012                                                            Page 5
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We are always keen to help share knowledge about accessibility and assistive
technology. If you have any questions about how you may use the contents of this
Factsheet please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

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Updated April 2012                                                                  Page 6
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Updated April 2012                                                                  Page 7

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