Assistive technology (AT) refers to a number of accommodations and adaptations which enable individuals with disabilities to function more independently. This includes any type of technology that provides students with disabilities greater access to the general education curriculum and increases the potential to master academic content, interact with others, and enhance functional independence and quality of life. While AT is not necessary or required for every student receiving special education services, schools are required to provide the appropriate assistive technology system when it supports the child’s access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). There are various types of technology ranging from "low" to "high" tech that might be incorporated into the educational setting to increase children’s independent functioning skills and reduce barriers that may prevent them from performing at a similar level as their peers. For example, students may use software with word prediction capabilities that allow them to have more success with written composition. Hardware such as portable keyboards, laptop computers, and tablets may lessen the physical demand of writing for students with weak fine motor skills or difficulty coordinating ideas with writing. Similarly, a speech-generating device or voice output communication aids may meet the needs of children with limited expressive language, by providing an effective means of verbal communication.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
Communication impairments can impact an individual’s ability to communicate with others (expressive communication) and/or receive communication from others (receptive communication). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is a type of assistive technology that can help assist children with communication impairments to increase skills in this area and to become more competent communicators. Some students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have difficulty with expressive communication may be successful in social interaction and expressing their wants and needs with a low technology AAC system such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS©). PECS is considered an evidence-based practice that incorporates both behavioral and developmental-pragmatic principles to teach functional communication to children with limited verbal and/or communication skills. There are six phases of PECS instruction, with each phase building on the last. The phases are: (1) Teaching the physically assisted exchange, (2) Expanding spontaneity, (3) Simultaneous discrimination of pictures, (4) Building sentence structure, (5) Responding to, “What do you want?” and (6) Commenting in response to a question. PECS relies on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) so that distinct prompting, reinforcement, and error correction strategies are specified at each training phase in order to teach spontaneous, functional communication. The research evidence suggests that PECS can be used in multiple settings, including schools, homes, and therapy settings to successfully improve functional communication, play, and behavioral skills.
It is important for educational teams to consider AAC for any student with ASD. For some students, AAC may act as the primary mode of communication. For others, it may be a secondary form. A referral to an assistive technology specialist or speech-language pathologist for an evaluation should be made for a student who may benefit from assistive technology and/or an augmentative communication system. As with all assessment and intervention procedures, a team approach is necessary to determine the child’s strengths and limitations, and the range and scope of potential assistive technology options to address his or her specific needs.
Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Key References and Further Reading
Charlop-Christy, M. H., Carpenter, M., H., LeBlanc, L. A., & Kellet, K. (2002). Using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) with children with autism: Assessment of PECS acquisition, speech, social-communicative behavior, and problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 213–231.
Frost, L., & Bondy, A. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System Training Manual (2nd ed.). Cherry Hill, NJ: Pyramid Educational Consultants.
Ganz, J. B., Davis, J. L., Lund, E. M., Goodwyn, F. D., & Simpson, R. L. (2012). Meta-analysis of PECS with individuals with ASD: Investigation of targeted versus non-targeted outcomes, participant characteristics, and implementation phase. Research in Developmental Disorders, 33, 406-418. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2011.09.023.
Hart, S. L., & Banda, D. R. (2010). Picture Exchange Communication System with individuals with developmental disabilities: A meta-analysis of single subject studies. Remedial and Special Education, 31, 476-488. doi: 10.1177/0741932509338354.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Pub. L. No. 108-446, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. (2004).
Kabot, S., & Reeve, C. (2014). Curriculum and Program Structure. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 195-218). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
National Autism Center (2015). Findings and conclusions: National standards project, phase 2. Randolph, MA: Author. Available from: http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/national-standards-project/phase-2/
Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Hoffman, A. O., Horton, C. B., Bondy, A., & Frost, L. (2009).
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): What do the data say? Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24, 89-103.
Twachtman-Cullen, D. & Twachtman-Bassett, J. (2014). Language and Social Communication. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 101-124). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (Ed.) (2014). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2014). Introduction: Evidence-Based Practice for Autism Spectrum Disorder. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp 3-13). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). Best Practice in Special Education. In A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (pp. 157-200). London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk…Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 1951-66. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a nationally certified and licensed school psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He provides consultation services and best practice guidance to school systems, agencies, advocacy groups, and professionals on a wide variety of topics related to children and youth with autism. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).