April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day. It’s a big day in the autism community as it reminds those who haven’t been affected by this condition that it still exists, and the number of those affected with the condition rises all the time. On April 2nd, many major world landmarks are even lighting up with light blue lights, to celebrate and remind us of the day, and to mark the start of World Autism Awareness Month.
What does any of this have to do with m-learning? EVERYTHING.
In the last year or two, it’s been mobile devices–especially iPads and other tablets–that have proven to be excellent tools and teachers for autistic kids. Unlike other devices of the past, today’s tablets have proven to be more affordable and learner friendly for autistic kids. Did you see the segment on 60 Minutes months ago where they showed children who they didn’t think had an understanding of language use iPad apps to “speak” and show that they comprehended language better than had been thought? This is a major deal, because this would enable autistic people to truly have a voice, even if they couldn’t physically speak. Communication is a huge part of life, and this helps them communicate. This is major stuff!
Additionally, higher functioning autistic kids often needs help with their homework and schoolwork, and need something more tactile and something that provides instant feedback even faster than a computer would. More than even a typical kid (“normal” is a relative term in the special ed world, because, what is truly “normal”?), autistic kids don’t necessarily like being stuck in front of a computer sitting still. Working in an environment that is comfortable helps with producing a productive learning environment, and even a laptop can’t pull that off well sometimes.
But the use of smartphones and tablets? Autistic kids LOVE them! They have the bling of a video game with the general conveniences of a desktop or laptop. Apps are affordable, and there are so many for special ed educators to use with autistic children, and get a positive response. If the best in special ed elearning is applied to mobile devices, I’m sure that large strides can be made for the betterment of these children. Portability–or rather mobility–of the device is key.
I think there’s a big market and opportunity in creating mobile learning apps and texts for people with autism. As mentioned, it seems that the population is growing due to better diagnoses over time, so early intervention with the right tools are essential, and those involved in mobile learning have a huge opportunity to make a difference!
If you don’t create learning apps or software for kids but would like to donate your time to help, check out the Hacking Autism site, which is sponsored by Autism Speaks, and I believe in prior years was also sponsored by HP.
Why do I take such an interest in this? As you may have guessed by now, autism is a big part of my daily life. My almost 11 year old son was diagnosed at age 9 as being on the cusp between having Asperger’s a syndrome and high functioning autistic, being so high functioning that he eluded many people who tried to diagnose him earlier. He was categorized as high functioning autistic in the end as he had speech problem when he was very small that required a lot of speech and occupational therapy, even though his speech issues have been resolved. (In fact, much like his mother, he often doesn’t stop talking now.)
I look at the capabilities of what apps on an iPad can do that I wish it had been around when he was smaller. While he is a “digital native”, and he has been around computers all his life due to two parents in the IT/e-learning world , he is most smitten with my iPad. Granted, it’s so he can mostly play Angry Birds in Space right now, but since he has an interest in physics and science, I’ve put a lot of games that are oriented around the use of physics, and he responds. When he has writing assignments, he likes being able to type either directly on the iPad or using my wireless keyboard to write his homework. Just the other day, I showed him the entry from the Khan Academy about the odds of winning the MegaMillions, and he thought it was cool. I could show him all these things right from my iPad, and not have to drag him to my laptop or his desktop. He loves interactivity and loves to watch videos, as he’s mostly a visual learner.
I foresee more and more uses coming about with the use of smartphones and iPads for kids and adults with autism as time goes on.
Oh, and one more thing. Through my son, we’ve figured out that I, most likely, am also on the autism spectrum as well, most likely a high-functioning Aspie. Imagine figuring that out in your early forties! While most who have known me even for most of my lifetime would say, “Really? How is that possible? You are so NORMAL!” I would contend that I had many of the same social and learning issues as my son, but to a lesser degree than him, as a child. I still have problems understanding some social signs, and it’s like mental gymnastics when I get overwhelmed with things even now. My brain just shuts down. As a result,I understand it when my son gets frustrated too. (Imagine my poor husband, when he has to deal with both of us having meltdowns of various degrees!)
I find that part of the reason that learning instructional design comes so easily to me is because I’ve had to figure out–the hard way–through my life how to actually learn. I had to figure out how to retain information, and how to figure out how to make study skills become a natural action. Since it was harder for me to learn how to learn, the information and those skills I did attain have stayed with me longer. I can look at content from the eyes of the end user as well as the author, knowing that if a certain desired response is being elicited, then the right word choice or presentation of information needs to be done. The digital age has helped me open up and find my voice and my ability to write effectively, when I thought, as a child, I was not a writer at all, and had major difficulties doing so. Having this “natural” ability with instructional design and a passion for technology are what have helped me in my career, and what will hopefully propel me forward as I continue to pursue an e-learning/m-learning career. In the end, it’s not about metrics and logistics of e-learning or m-learning, but the actual LEARNING that’s most important to me.
Autism is a big part of my life, and it’s a big reason why I’m so passionate about m-learning. It’s not just the wave of the future for typical learners, but the wave of the future for ALL learners.