When we think of assistive technology, we often go to things like stair lifts, home monitoring systems and alarms that help physically disabled and elderly people to live independent lives.
But one group which is starting to benefit more and more from assistive tech is people with autism. Both children and adults up and down the country are tapping into apps and clever gadgets that are helping them to manage their emotions, communicate and relieve stress all at the same time.
“I think we’re on the cusp of technology really changing people’s lives,” says Jane Carolan, director of operations at Wirral Autistic Society, a charity providing care and support services for individuals with autism and social communication difficulties. “Thanks to technology, people are better able to communicate, to access the community, be independent and just have a better quality of life.”
This autumn, Jane is organising Autech, a conference aiming to give professionals, carers and individuals a better understanding of the great benefits that technological advances can bring to the lives of people with autism.
“Local authorities are trying to squeeze us on the number of hours that we put into supporting people and the amount of funding that’s going into that,”
Jane says. “One of the things that they say is, ‘Can you use assistive technology to help
somebody have a more independent life?’
But then they don’t tell you what that assistive technology might be. We hope the conference will explain that.’”
Families across Britain are starting to reep the benefits of these technologies. Lorraine Bennett’s son Pete is 24. He has Down’s syndrome and associated health problems, as well as autism. Pete has been nonverbal all his life.
When Lorraine read about an iPad app on the Down’s Syndrome Association forum which was helping people communicate, she knew she had to give it a go. Proloquo2go (www.assistiveware.com/product/proloquo2go) is a multi awardwinning symbol-based communication app, which lets users say what they want by selecting corresponding pictures on-screen.
Pete can now tell his parents what he wants to do, answer questions and he’s even started to tell them if he’s feeling unwell.
“He used the PECS system in special needs nursery, so he was familiar with the symbols and used them really well,” Lorraine says. “The speech therapist had no problem getting him to use them, so we
knew this was a good base.
“The app consists of different symbols. We base it on how he uses his PECS book. I have the main page split into things like feelings, activities, food and drinks, greetings, comments, bedtime, getting ready, exercises and questions. If you tap on any of them, it takes you to another page to give more detail. Since he’s started using the app, Pete’s more confident. Happier. Someone not having a voice and then they’ve got a voice – that’s life-changing.”
And app-based tech isn’t just helping with verbal communication. Brain in Hand (www.braininhand.co.uk) is one app for smartphones that’s helping users manage their feelings on the go. They’re linked up with a trusted person or family member who is notified whenever they feel their stress levels rising – this is really important for people with autism, who often feel anxious in everyday situations but lack the tools to control their emotions.
Kate Jones’s daughter Bethan, 16, has been trialling Brain in Hand through Wirral Autistic
for the last few months on the lead up to her GCSEs – and, according to her mum, the app
helped keep meltdowns at bay.
“She’s been fantastic with it,” Kate says.
“It’s like a traffic light system – red means she needs help, amber she’s OK and green
means she’s good. If she had any issues, she’d press the red button and it’d go direct to Chloe at the Wirral Autistic group, who she’s really close with, who would then phone straight away to talk to her about how she’s feeling. If she couldn’t resolve the issue, she’d then phone me or email me so I could get in contact and see what the issue was.”
As well as letting Bethan call for help if she’s struggling, the app will send alerts to her phone every couple of hours to get her to check in and let Chloe know how she’s getting on throughout the day.
“Bethan gets very frustrated, and she struggles to find the person to talk to about what’s frustrating her,” Kate explains. “It’s benefited her a lot, and she’s still using it to this day.”
Apps are just the beginning.
Autech will feature speakers from a range of backgrounds. Dr Matthew Goodwin, an expert from the USA, will be talking about groundbreaking biotechnology which tracks the senses in the body and sends an alert if someone is getting anxious or stressed. Delegates will also be hearing from Dr Ben Robins from the University of Hertfordshire, who will introduce KASPAR, a clever robot which looks like a child and encourages communication and social interaction in children with autism.
Of course, all of this isn’t to say technology is the answer to all of the challenges faced by the 700,000 Brits living with autism – the spectrum is so broad and every person so individual that that would be impossible. But what it can do is offer people tools to help make life a little bit easier, more comfortable and less stressful.
“We know that everybody with autism is slightly different,” Jane concludes. “So the
most important thing is getting the right technology in place for that individual. There is so much out there that can make a real difference.
The Autech conference is taking place at Old Trafford, Manchester, on 1 October. Find out more and book your slot at www.autech2015.co.uk, or call 0151 334 7510.
First appeared in Enable Magazine: www.enablemagazine.co.uk