Michael’s Article


Mobile Devices as Cognitive-Behavioral Supports for People with Autism

Tony Gentry, PhD OTR/L, Associate Professor and Director, Assistive Technology for Cognition Laboratory, Virginia Commonwealth University

With the emergence of smartphones and tablet computers over the past few years, people with autism are learning how to use these multi-functional devices to help manage day-to-day tasks in all sorts of ways. For the past decade, the Assistive Technology Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University has been researching handheld computers as cognitive-behavioral aids for autism. We have learned that mobile devices can improve functional independence, reduce the need for workplace supervision, and give people a renewed sense of self-determination. Not bad for a tool that can cost less than a bicycle!

The reminder alerts function of turn of the Century Palm Pilots worked well to help people make appointments, take medications and stay on-task across a busy day. Newer devices offer an amazing range of additional supports. For instance, those who have trouble completing multi-step tasks can benefit from step-by-step lists or picture-sequence supports. The free applications Muzio and Snapguide allow users to build talking slide shows or instructional videos directly on a mobile device.  Other uses of mobile video include individualized social stories, behavioral coaching and way-finding.

Many people with autism face daily anxiety and stress.  Apps that offer instruction in deep breathing or relaxation can help. Sometimes music, puzzle or game apps offer welcome distractions from worry.  If a person with autism is at risk of wandering, a GPS-based person-tracking app, such as Find my iPhone or Family Tracker can help caregivers stay abreast of their whereabouts.

For school, finance management and work tasks, a host of apps are available.  The same is true of healthy living apps that address fitness, sleep and diet.  The biggest challenge for a service provider or consumer may be keeping up with all the available devices and apps and selecting the best suite of tools for each particular person’s needs.  It’s important not to use too many apps, which only leads to confusion.  In our research, most subjects have relied on only 3 or 4 apps – typically a reminder, a task-sequencing list, a task management video or two, and a relaxation app.  This gets the job done without the risk of overwhelming a person with too many choices.  We typically start with daily task reminders, and as a person becomes competent in their use, we add additional supports one at a time. In using these strategies, however, it can help tremendously to work with a service provider who understands both autism and the devices themselves, one who can follow a step-by-step assessment, intervention and follow-along approach to ensure success.  Without that, a device that may have been life-changing can end up gathering dust in a drawer.

To learn more about using mobile devices for autism, see this website: http://www.vcuautismcenter.org/resources/smartphone.cfm or contact Tony Gentry at logentry@vcu.edu.

We Don’t Need Autism Awareness


I say this with strong conviction, as an Autistic who has been hurt by the “awareness” campaign.

The Autism Awareness message does not reach the larger public in a way that helps us and our families. In fact, it hurts us in many different ways, sometimes leaving deep scars.

Awareness brings pity. We are seen as unhappy, suffering, tragic people who cause pain and despair to our families. Our most vulnerable moments are constantly on display, as if only Autistics have bad moments, as if we never experience and share joy. Those are wrong assumptions.

Awareness brings the grading of Autistics. That absurd notion of “low” and “high” functioning is spread around to silence Autistics whose disabilities are not so visible, and to make Autistics whose abilities might be still hidden look like a big bag of deficits in need of fixing.

Awareness brings dangerous practices. The use of questionable “treatments” and “therapies” is advertised as tools to make our lives better. ABA is promoted as a lifeline to families, when in reality is an attack on our rights as human beings. It seeks to train us to be compliant and obedient, suffocating the coping mechanisms we use to experience an unaccepting and overwhelming world.

Awareness says we are broken and that we need fixing because the neuromajority defined “normal” and wants us to be more like everyone else, even if this means disrespecting who we are.

Awareness brings silly excuses for trying to change us. Like: “ABA is not that bad if used right”. Wrong: anything you want me to change because you cannot understand, it is not my deficit, it is yours.

Awareness makes our portrayal in the media as difficult, pitiful and dangerous and makes it seem like the reality of our lives. Nobody asks us how we feel. When a parent murders an Autistic child (or adult), the sympathy goes to the parent. We are said to be better off dead.

Do you still think we need awareness?

We need acceptance and inclusion. We need to be seen as complete human beings. The help we might need should not be considered something to avoid. We have a lot to offer, but not if pity and fear are the first associations people make with autism.

Technology can help us show who we really are, what we think, what we want. Trust us, accept us, listen to us, talk to us.

Autistics, and other disabled people, are using technology to be included in classrooms, to better navigate the world. This technology can help us show self-determination, it can help us advocate for ourselves and for others. Acceptance is the guarantee that we will be able to use all the technology available to, for example, say what we think without being punished for being “non-compliant”. Our individuality and our personality can show without the burden of awareness-driven ideas that we are not whole and that we need to “change”.

Acceptance includes the broad use of all available technology in classrooms and work places. Teachers, professionals, co-workers and employers should learn the different ways we use technology for a better understanding and productivity in every area of our lives.

No more awareness. I reject this message. If you cannot accept me, move away and let me continue my journey.

I want acceptance and opportunities. I say this with the unquestionable authority of being Autistic.