From Autism Transition Handbook
Assistive Technology Overview
The purpose of Assistive Technology is to help individuals with disabilities of all ages with various aspects of daily living. The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (also referred to as the Tech Act) defines assistive technology as any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.
Individuals with autism can achieve greater independence and an enhanced quality of life through assistive technology by gaining the ability to perform tasks more easily and complete new tasks that could not be done before. Numerous assistive technology devices are available, but finding a device that suits a person’s individualized needs is key.
Assistive technology has the potential to improve an individual's communication skills. Specifically, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) methods can strengthen communication in individuals with autism by allowing them to "express their thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas" more easily and effectively. AAC can be unaided or aided. Examples of unaided methods include body gestures and body language, which can sometimes be difficult to comprehend. Aided methods are pictures paired with words and/or recordings as well as assistive electronic devices.
What is the law?
Tech Act (Public Law 105-394) states: Substantial progress has been made in the development of assistive technology devices, including adaptations to existing equipment, that significantly benefit individuals with disabilities of all ages. Such devices can be used to increase the involvement of such individuals in, and reduce expenditures associated with, programs and activities such as early intervention, education, rehabilitation and training, employment, residential living, independent living, recreation, and other aspects of daily living.  There are a number of other laws related to assistive technology that can be found here: Assistive Technology Laws.
What types of Assistive Technology are available?
Federally funded, AbleData is a searchable database that provides objective information, such as detailed product descriptions, pricing, and company information, on assistive technologies and rehabilitative equipment. Although there are almost 40,000 product listings, the site allows for efficient navigation to the desired product through systematic categories. To view the main categories, please visit AbleData's categories page. The site also has a variety of resources to find local information centers, contains a library of publications as well as information on customized product designs.
Pennsylvania's Assistive Technology Lending Library is a great way to borrow AT devices, allowing individuals to test out an item before purchasing it and save money. This program is coordinated and funded by Temple University's Institute on Disabilities. The site has an extensive equipment catalog, instructions on how to borrow items, and loan request forms.
Click on your state to see what resources for assistive technology are available at Disability.gov as well as the "Quick Links" on the sidebar for more helpful information.
Considerations Before Purchasing Assistive Technology 
Since assistive technology can sometimes be an expensive investment and finding the best fit for an individual is important, the following should be taken into consideration:
- Research the equipment that you are thinking about purchasing. Try to find out as much as possible about the product through the Internet, library, or the opinions of those who have used this product before.
- Consider the needs of the individual that will be using the technology and get his or her input as to what he or she prefers, can use, will use.
- Purchase equipment because of an identified need rather than because it is available.
- Consider whether the individual has any previous experience using a similar device.
- Ask what kind of warranty comes with the product.
- Anticipate any challenging behaviors of the individual that might interfere with the use of the equipment.
- Find out the cost of the device and whether funding from an agency is an option.
- Decide if a high tech product is really necessary or if a low tech device can achieve the same results.
Below is only a sampling of assistive technology that is available:
Picture Exchange Communication System
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a form of augmentative and alternative communication that utilizes pictures rather than words as a way to help individuals with autism communicate with others. Through PECS, individuals can initiate conversations and communicate their thoughts more easily. PECS is designed to build upon basic pictures so that one can communicate complete sentences, either simple or complex, through pictures. In more advanced phases, individuals can answer questions and make comments as well. The six phases are detailed on the PECS website.
MyVoice is a digital version of a picture board that allows individuals to express their thoughts and needs through pictures paired with recordings. It is an alternative and augmentative communications aid that can be used on an iPod, iPad, iPhone, or Android.
Proloquo2Go is an augmentative and alternative communication aid that allows individuals to communicate better with others. This application contains 14,000 symbols that are each paired with a word and picture to generate comprehensive speech. Automatic conjugation and word prediction make it easy to use on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.
Switchamajig Controller utilizes the iPad’s touch screen to control anything that is switch-adapted.
TapToTalk allows individuals to choose from a library of pictures and add any voice or recording to the picture to create individualized picture albums for communication. This application can be used on a variety of electronic devices, such as Apple products, Kindle, Nook, Android products, Nintendo DS, BlackBerry PlayBook, and PCs.
Photo Dial Telephones
Photo phones allow individuals to pair pictures with speed dial buttons for convenient dialing.
Mayer-Johnson specializes in developing assistive technology devices that range from high to low tech aids. To browse their many products, please visit www.mayer-johnson.com.
Apple Apps and the iPad
Applications (or Apps) for electronic devices like iPads and iPhones can be a useful tool for individuals with autism in facilitating communication and learning. The iPad's portability and ease of navigation through its touch screen and clear layout make it a great device for everyday use and more accessible for those with coordination or learning difficulties. Sliding and tapping keys make it easy to use and its customization options make it a form of communication board or augmentative communication device. Apple's Commitment to Accessibility and Resources for Accessibility offer more information.
This great overview of Apple's role in special education is categorized according to specific disabilities and the corresponding technological tool that can help alleviate common problems. Using Apple Technology to Support Learning for Students with Sensory and Learning Disabilities provides a good background on "Education Technology Today" along with real examples of students with autism who have used Apple technology to improve their educational experience and resolve the issues that have been barriers to success in the past. The PDF also has examples of actual windows that show up on a Mac screen, making it easy to follow instructions and to know what to expect when using these methods.
Apple's VoiceOver is a screen reader -- it reads what is on the screen based on spoken descriptions through a few simple commands. The buttons on the keyboard can also be read out-loud. Helpful instructional videos and the many features of VoiceOver can be found at the respective links.
The diversity of learners who can benefit from Apple technology is detailed here in an essential teaching and learning source by Apple Distinguished Educators. The four page PDF entitled Apple Technology: Uniquely Equipped to Let Every Student Succeed is an excellent overview along with specific examples of the built-in solutions that can break down barriers to learning.
Visit the iTunes App Store to see the applications available ranging from help with Communication, Emotional Development, Language Development, Literacy and Learning, Organization, and Life Skills here: Special Education Apps. The Autism Speaks site contains descriptions and prices of more Apps for Autism.
The 60 minutes segment, Apps for Autism: Communicating on the iPad, reports on how individuals with autism are making breakthroughs in communication with tablet computers and special applications.
Although Apple devices like an iPad can be costly, it may be well worth the investment because of the wide range of capabilities and applications such devices possess.
The App Wheel for Students with ASD developed by Mark Coppin, Director of Assistive Technology, Anne Carlsen Center that includes applications that support the development of communication and social skills, among others.
Research Evidence for Effectiveness of Assistive Technology
Case studies in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation demonstrate the use of Apple iPod touch personal digital assistants as vocational supports. The iPod touch can help with task management and organization, enabling individuals with autism to perform more successfully on the job. The methodology of the study as well as the individual case studies and the improvements individuals with autism made using their iPod touch are detailed at the following article: www.sciencenewsline.com
A Technology Project: The Use of IPod Touch to Improve the Quality of Lives of Individuals with Autism by Alison Allen, Ed.D. and Kaori G. Nepo, M.Ed., BCBA.
1. National Association of Special Education Teachers. (2007) Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act. [online] Retrieved 8/3/12 from http://www.naset.org/techassist2.0.html.
2. Hauss, S. (2004) What is Assistive Technology? A Basic Guide for Individuals with Disabilities and Their Families. [online] Retrieved 8/3/12 from http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=2504. Bloomington, IN: Center for Disability Information and Referral.