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Autistic children and digital technologies: How are we connected?

04 Apr, 2022

On 2 April, we celebrate World Autism Day, and it is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the everyday experiences of children on the autism spectrum.

Digital technologies are increasingly part of the daily lives of many children on the spectrum. Despite the growing number of studies suggesting the benefits of digital technology use, much of the research relies on self-reporting by adolescents and adults. Little is known about children’s use of digital technology in their daily lives from their own perspectives.

I developed a study focused on the everyday digital experiences of children on the autism spectrum in the home context. Respecting the families’ availability and preferences, the study invited the children and their families to share their digital experiences through in-person and online meetings, text messages, phone calls and videos recorded by the families.

The study found that children engaged with a range of digital experiences. The children interacted with digital technologies individually, with their parents, siblings, friends during playdates, with therapists, and occasionally with the researcher during meetings. The children used a range of digital devices that included desktop computers, laptops, tablets, Smartphones, Smart TVs, and personal voice assistants. Through these devices, children accessed various software, including apps, YouTube searches and channels, games, and movies. Understandings from the study highlighted how digital technologies could be used to engage with daily home routines (such as mealtimes), social interactions with family members, and other activities that reinforced the versatility and advantages of digital technologies for this group of children.

Families used digital technologies for different purposes, including supporting children’s reading and fine motor development. I share two brief anecdotes of family involvement between a child and parent. In the first experience, the mother-daughter interaction was between a six-year-old girl called Ella (pseudonym) and her mother. Ella watched with her mother a YouTube video of a family teaching each other how to draw step-by-step. Ella and her mother used this video to further develop Ella’s fine motor skills. During their interactions while they were drawing together, I observed the conversation they were sharing about their drawings, and the caring moments that were happening between Ella and her mother. The shared activity resulted in laughing together, sharing compliments and stating how much they loved using YouTube together. Here, the YouTube videos became an interactional space for Ella and her mother to initiate conversations with each other and produce a warm and caring moment between them. In another experience, a six-year-old boy called Leo (pseudonym) was engaged in a lengthy FaceTime conversation with his grandparents who were living overseas. Due to COVID restrictions, these online conversations had become a common activity in the household, which supported Leo’s relationship with his grandparents through encouraging opportunities for conversations. This experience, and many others like this, show how family relationships are sustained through social interactions that involve some form of digital technology.

The understandings from this study demonstrate the importance of expanding the ways that we think about children’s use of digital technologies and their interactions with digital technologies and with family members. Healthy relationships, joyful interactions and positive communications influence children’s development. These social interactions between children and family members or friends occur because the digital technologies make possible these social family times. The time that children dedicate to their digital experiences are opportunities to share feelings, have nourished conversations, strengthen relationships and further develop their communication skills.

World Autism Day is a good time to remind us of the urgency of giving children on the spectrum a voice for their perspectives, and opportunities to have a say in matters that directly affect them. With digital technologies are strongly present in some autistic children’s lives, understanding their role and possibilities can help stakeholders, policymakers, parents, carers, and educators find ways to make the most of children’s digital experiences.

Are you interested in this topic? You might like to read these papers:

Danby, S. (2017). Technologies, child-centred practice and listening to children. In L. Arnott (Ed.), Digital technologies and learning in the early years (1st ed. ed.). SAGE Publications Ltd. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/qut/detail.action?docID=4864519.

Flippin, M., & Watson, L. R. (2015). Fathers’ and Mothers’ Verbal Responsiveness and the Language Skills of Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 24(3), 400-410. https://doi.org/10.1044/2015_ajslp-13-0138.

Francis, G. A., Farr, W., Mareva, S., & Gibson, J. L. (2019). Do Tangible User Interfaces promote social behaviour during free play? A comparison of autistic and typically-developing children playing with passive and digital construction toys. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 58, 68-82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2018.08.005.

Hedges, S. H., Odom, S. L., Hume, K., & Sam, A. (2018). Technology use as a support tool by secondary students with autism. Autism, 22(1), 70-79. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317717976.

Hiltz, V. (2017). The Work of Play: How Video Games Affect Social Interactions for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder ProQuest Dissertations Publishing].

Tanner, K., Dixon, R. M., & Verenikina, I. (2010). The digital technology in the learning of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in applied classroom settings Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2010, Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/35001/.


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About the author/s

Acknowledging children on the spectrum and their connection with technologies, Irina Silva’s research aims to investigate the influence of digital technologies on children on the spectrum and their everyday life. Irina’s project is a digital ethnographic study that aims to understand the ... more
Associate Professor Beth Saggers’ research focuses on maximizing the success of schooling experiences for diverse learners, their families and  school communities. Beth’s research focuses on the use of qualitative and  mixed methods methodologies to strengthen our understanding from ... more
Professor Susan Danby is one of Australia’s leading experts in early years language and social interaction, childhood studies, and young children’s engagement with digital technologies. As Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, Susan leads a collective of national and in ... more

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