STL autism experts discuss technology's impact

On World Autism Awareness Day, a special education teacher and a Washington University child psychiatrist discuss the benefits and pitfalls when it comes to the educational and recreational use of technology by children on the autism spectrum.

There are only eight students at the AFA Academy in Ballwin, where the emphasis is to help older children with autism gain independence.

"We're trying to get them to communicate to us what they want," said special education teacher Jean Glass.

Glass has been working with 18-year-old Grant for three years.

"Because he's an older student now and as a teenager, he's understanding his environment in different ways, and for a student with autism, that can be a very scary and anxiety-driven experience," said Glass. "So we are giving him more of an opportunity to see pictures and put pictures to that word so he can tell us for example if he's not feeling well."

Technology such as Grant's augmentative communication device has become a valuable learning tool.

"They are drawn to the pictures, they are drawn to the sounds," said Glass, "so when we add that appropriate education piece to it, it's pretty much a perfect match."

Dr. Paul Glaser, is a Washington University child psychiatrist who specializes in autism therapy.

"They love technology, they are into iPads, they love smart phones, they're into computers, the internet," said Glaser.

Dr. Glaser cautions parents about the downside of too much recreational tech stimulation.

"They start to become irritable, if they're not on the technology," said Glaser. "They start to put aside things such as their homework. The downside of today's technology, especially for teens with autism, is that there is still the opportunity of addiction."

When it comes to realistic video games, Glaser says parents have to monitor closely a child on the autism spectrum who may not know the difference between fantasy and reality.

"Gaming programs such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, could have such good graphics that they can seem very real to children and teens," said Glaser, "and therefore they start to think 'what if I could do this in real life?'"

Both Glaser and Glass say with parental supervision, the plusses outweigh the minuses when it comes to technology and children on the autism spectrum.

"They can't sit in a classroom all day long to listen to a teacher," said Glaser, "but when you put it into a computer interface, often times their learning just skyrockets."

For information about autism services, www.greatcircle.org and www.afastl.org.