Computing and Autistic Spectrum Disorders

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Computing and Students with Autism

People with autism generally experience three main areas of difficulty; these are known as the triad of impairments:

  • Social interaction – difficulty with social relationships, e.g. appearing aloof and indifferent to others.
  • Social communication – difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, e.g. not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice.
  • Imagination – difficulty in the development of interpersonal skills and imagination, e.g. having a limited range of imaginative abilities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively.

In addition to this triad, repetitive behaviour patterns and resistance to change in routine are often also characteristic.

Individuals may often interupt inappropriately and be unable to interpret any cues that such interruptions are unwelcome. They may also appear non-compliant at times, as they often have difficulty taking direction and coping with negative feedback. Students with autistic spectrum disorders may often be perceived as being rude or arrogant – and it is important that academic staff are aware that the student has impaired communication and that any rudeness is unintentional. Tutorial participation may present problems for some students and allowances for these communication difficulties may be necessary.

Commentators and practitioners have noted the value of computers, both therapeutically and educationally, to people with autistic spectrum disorders. Murray (1999) has noted that people with autistic spectrum disorders seem to have monotropic interest systems: their attention tends to be fixed on isolated objects which are viewed as though through a tunnel, apart from the surrounding context. Computers are an ideal resource to break into this world because they start where the individual is, allowing cotropical interaction, by joining the individual’s attention tunnel. External events can be more easily ignored when focusing on a computer screen as the area of concentration is limited to the bounds of the screen. The small area of focus might explain why some people with autism can tolerate higher sensory input via a computer than they can apparently tolerate elsewhere.

Because computers offer a context-free environment in which many people with autism feel comfortable, therapists and tutors are increasingly using virtual reality tools to teach life skills, such as crossing the road, and social skills, such as recognising emotions in other people.

Some other advantages of computers for individuals with autism are that they:

  • are predictable and, therefore, controllable.
  • enable errors to be made safely.
  • offer a highly perfectible medium.
  • give possibilities of non-verbal or verbal expression.

Murray suggests that it is important to allow students with autism the freedom to explore the computer before trying out programs with a more didactic purpose. Since computers are led by the user’s choices, and offer a highly simplified and positively reinforcing environment they can be of great benefit to this population. They can be an aid to effective communication, especially between the person with autism and the carer. They may motivate individuals with autism to speak (either to the computer or to another person), to read, or to show and share their achievements.

Computers can create an awareness of self as, by touching a key, the student causes visible changes on the screen. Use of a computer is an interactive process, which can be enhanced by using two-person games. Not only do these foster an awareness of both self and other, but playing a computer game allows the person with autism to communicate with another person in a non-verbal environment. It offers an entity through which two people can engage, an inanimate, asocial, reflecting response mechanism.

Murray makes a strong case for ensuring that all individuals with autism have access to a computer, whether at home or at the institution. To gain the most benefit it will be best to ensure that carers and staff are equipped to provide the necessary support. It will be helpful for them to have some prior familiarity with the software available, not so as to take over or demonstrate but to make suggestions as the individual makes use of the programs. Many students with autism will find the experience confidence boosting and this is likely to reduce challenging behaviour. Once an individual is comfortable in his/her relationship with computers, his/her educational potential can be realised, through individual learning programs.

Choosing Computer Equipment for People with Autism

Many people with autism will be comfortable using standard computer hardware. Some, however, may find it easier to use specially adapted equipment. People who have difficulty with fine motor skills can use touch screens, joysticks and switches instead of the standard mouse and/or keyboard to interact with the computer. Students who find the standard keyboard too complex may prefer a keyboard with large keys or a graphic overlay (a flat board with a simple layout of letter, words or pictures which can be used instead of or alongside a standard keyboard).

Virtual Reality and Autism

Research has found that virtual reality (VR) can be a useful learning tool for people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. The use of VR in the treatment of people with phobias is already well established – the virtual reality environment is a ‘safe’ medium in which people can be exposed gradually to their fears, so that their next encounter with the situation in the real world is less traumatic. Strickland (1998) has shown that individuals with autism can not only accept virtual reality, but also use it to rehearse problematic real-life situations. There are several advantages of VR for the individual with autism:

  • VR uses sight and sound more than touch: auditory and visual stimuli have been found to be most effective in teaching abstract concepts to people with autism.
  • In the virtual environment, input stimuli can be modified to a tolerable level.
  • The environment can be altered gradually to teach generalisation and cross-recognition.
  • Above all, VR offers a safe learning environment in which the individual may make mistakes which might be physically or socially hazardous in the real world.

Strickland admits, however, that further work is needed to discover whether individuals with autism are able to translate the skills learned in the virtual environment to real world situations.


Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Read more detailed information about Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

Teaching strategies associated with Autism


These strategies are suggestions for inclusive teaching. This list should not be considered exhaustive and it is important to remember that all students are individuals and what is considered to be good practice for one student may not necessarily be good practice for another. You may also like to contact the Disability Specialist in your institution for further information. If you have any good practice that you would like to add to this list, please email your suggestions to

Students with autistic spectrum disorders are likely to need support and assistance in the areas of: transition and induction, in lectures and tutorials, with organisation, with flexibility (e.g. examination arrangements), technical support, peer support and awareness raising, mentors and social skills development.

  • Provide sufficient time to discuss needs with the student before/during their initial teaching session.
Transition and Induction

Students may require:

  • Longer periods of induction to the institution and during periods of change such as work placements.
  • Help with orientation such as maps of routes between teaching venues.
  • Help with timetables e.g. written clarification of information such as tutors and rooms.

In certain situations, students may require personal assistants to help with areas of their study, such as:

  • Providing support during lectures.
  • Providing support with organisational issues.
  • Providing support during private study such as library work.
  • Facilitating communication with staff and peers.
Support in Taught Sessions and Tutorials
  • Reduce potential distractions e.g. light and sounds.
  • Consider seating arrangements and check with students about their individual needs, some students may need to sit with their back to the wall or near to a door.
  • Highlight essential and relevant information e.g. in lecture notes and reading lists.
  • Provide written summaries / bulleted lists of main points e.g. in meetings and discussions.
  • Email communication and written communication.
  • Provide regular breaks for students if necessary.
Organisational Support
  • Schedules or timetables.
  • To do lists.

Flexibility may need to be expressed in terms of:

  • Assignments.
  • Examination arrangements – e.g. time allowed, colour of paper and ink.
  • Rooms.
  • Breaks.
  • Calming techniques that students may need to employ.
Social Support

In addition to learning and teaching support, students with autistic spectrum disorders may need additional support. This could be achieved through the assignment of a peer mentor. Mentors can provide social support within the academic setting, but some students may also require additional support to develop social skills in context, e.g. money, shopping, clothes, hygiene, etc. Sources of support need to be identified in order to ensure that students receive effective social support in all situations.


Potential challenges to the achievement of learning