How technology is changing education for kids with special needs

Professor Ofer Golan and Professor Paul LaCava discuss the intersection between technology and education in the 21st century

Technology is transforming education, and special needs education is no exception.  The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent need for remote learning solutions have only accelerated the ongoing process, leading educators to ask—can we do more with technology? Does technology have the potential to help kids with special needs? Professor Ofer Golan sat down with leading ASD education expert Paul LaCava to get his take on these questions, and on the future of education for kids with ASD.

Paul G. LaCava is an associate professor of special education at Rhode Island College (RIC) and the program director of RIC’s Certificate of Graduate Study in Autism Education program and Exceptional Learning Needs Master’s program and the Research Coordinator at the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at RIC. He has over 25 years of experience working in the field of autism/developmental disabilities as a special educator, social skills group leader, consultant, and researcher. Since the early 2000s, Paul’s research focus has been on evaluating various methods to improve social/emotional outcomes for students with ASD. 

Ofer Golan is a clinical psychologist, associate professor, and the head of the Autism Research Lab at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. His research focuses on socio-emotional functioning in autism, including social communication, emotion recognition, expression and regulation, and ways to develop them through evidence-based interventions. He is the founder and the clinical advisor of two Israeli clinical centers which provide evidence-based diagnosis and intervention services for children, adolescents, and adults with autism and their families, in addition to training clinicians and disseminating evidence-based interventions nationwide.

LaCava explained that generalization is a key challenge that he and other educators face when teaching emotions to children with ASD. While they are often able to learn to identify an emotion in a specific context in the classroom, it is difficult for them to transfer that knowledge to other situations that they encounter in their daily life. Likewise, it is difficult for them to identify their own emotions. “We often teach the basic skill of identifying happy or sad in yourself and others, and then complex emotions, but what does it mean? How does it connect to real life and being successful and happy and able to adjust? I think that’s really the bottom line,” says LaCava. “Relating emotion recognition instruction with self-regulation instruction is really the ultimate goal. But then you need to learn not only how to recognize emotions in other people’s faces, but also how to pick out emotional cues in your own body or mind.”

Golan and LaCava discussed the implications of the fact that in the past decade, using a device in daily life has become normative. Therefore, if people with ASD use a device to facilitate their interactions, it no longer seems unusual. LaCava explains, “Everyone has a smartphone, so in terms of inclusion and being in the community, it’s not seen as different or awkward. It’s just part of normal, everyday life. And everyone’s looking at their phone, so if someone looks at their phone to get cues and assistance on how to interact with others, it’s not a big deal now.”

There are various technological innovations in the pipeline designed to meet the needs of kids with ASD. Some focus on wearables, others on virtual reality, and some, like EmotiPlay, focus specifically on emotion recognition. Both LaCava and Golan see a lot of potential in these interventions. Because they are more structured than everyday life, they can be easier for kids with ASD to navigate. On the other hand, research has shown that with consistent practice and adult support, they can also strengthen a child’s capabilities in everyday life. “I actually use the term “flexible structure” (when evaluating these technologies),” LaCava summarizes. “They need structure, but you’ve also got to teach people with autism about flexibility. You’ve got to teach them to be flexible and deal with changes in their environment. Technology, with professional and parental support, can do exactly that.”

About EmotiPaly 

EmotiPlay is a research-based tool that helps therapists, teachers, and parents teach children with autism to understand emotion, a life skill that impacts almost every element of their lives.

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