In recent years, the number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has increased significantly, making the fields of the design and implementation of educational interventions as an urgent research topic with a variety of challenges and difficulties.
The most important of such challenges is the comorbidity of the main Spectrum with other Disorders and mainly with Intellectual Disability (ID), as 70% of individuals with ASD have a type of ID (Schwartz & Neri, 2012), while “50-60% of people with ID present the triad of autistic deficits in language, social interaction and imagination” (Wing & Gould, 1979). This comorbidity, combined with the existence of other syndromes or disorders in lesser or greater degree, demonstrates the uniqueness of each individual concerning his/her learning profile, as well as our difficulty in finding panacea educational solutions, addressed to smooth the cognitive deficits of such an heterogeneous student population.
However, technology seems to have the power and dynamics to play the panacea role and deal with every research gap. The multimedia representation of every information, the existing manufacturing structure of any software program and the variety of solutions and approaches offered, make the technology capable of utilizing every positive student’s attribute and full of his/her potential, providing the required number of stimulus for effective learning as well as for motivation. Despite of this capacity, only a few number of domestic studies could be shown in the direction of the examination of its advantages in the education of such population, with the already existed to have serious limitations in research sample and method, failing to present adequate and generalized evidence about the use and the benefits of any technological tool.
For all the above reasons, the investigation of the added value of New Technologies in the education of individuals with ASD and ID has been set as the basic objective of the educational research program that started taking place at the Centre of Autism SOS from January 2014. In this program, teaching methods integrating the use of a computer, an Interactive WhiteBoard and a limited number of students’ tablets have been carefully designed and implemented in a well-equipped classroom that was constructed according to learners’ needs and by a highly-trained group of educators, who are Computer Engineers, with specialty in Special Education.
At the beginning of the program, students were divided into groups according to their age, with the two broad age ranges to consist of individuals from 11 to 19 years old and from 20 to 39 years old. Each group had from four to seven students, whereas further subgroups have arisen during the educational process and after basic educational assessments, categorizing the students according to their cognitive level and functionality. The outcome of such process was the cognitive and intellectual diversity of the final groups, as being consisted of learners with different levels of functionality, they have made possible the examination of the motivation of one student from another and the added value of social interaction and learning among students.
As for the intervention program, it was based on the philosophy of:
• the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
• the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) and
• the Social Stories
, integrating basic elements of those methods, whereas and in order that the learning preparedness and familiarity with New Technologies would be achieved, some students attended a required number of introductory courses. After those courses, students were able to use in a better degree the selected cognitive tools.
Thus, the selection of educational software programs was individualized for every student and based on his/her needs, as they were arisen from his/ her continuous evaluation that examined apart from the skills, his/her motivation and adaptability. Finally, the goals that were set at the beginning of the program and have being revised in regular basis (every three months), involved the use of technology in helping students to:
- Understand basic learning concepts
- Improve their cognitive and perceptual level
- Improve speaking and writing
- Increase their sensory development and integration
- Reduce hyperactivity with the use of continuous feedback by applying positive reinforcement rather than punishment
- Reduce negative behaviors, due to sensory impairments or generally to the Spectrum
- Be involved in traffic education
- Express properly their emotions
- Understand that they belong to a team and should respect one another and to
- Understand the value of money
One of the basic purposes of the ICT research educational program has been the transfer and generalization of knowledge and skills in natural environments and therefore external programs would be designed and held in regular basis, in the current school year. Finally another important and basic purpose is the examination of the effectiveness of different cognitive tools integrating Technology, as well as their comparison with other traditional tools in the aspects of a multisensory teaching environment, whereas the most basic purpose of educators apart from the design and the implementation of such a program, is the increase of the awareness of the entire educational community, through their participation in conferences and workshops.