The Use of iPads to Enhance Joint Attention Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Mangafa, Chrysoula; Moody, Louise; Woodcock, Andree and Woolner, Alex (2016). The Use of iPads to Enhance Joint Attention Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In: International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) 2016, 11-14 May 2016, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.



Background: iPads are increasingly used in primary schools with reported benefits in communication, independent learning and creativity. Children with autism spectrum disorder have an affinity with mobile technology, which is recognised by the autism research community with many studies emerging in this field. Joint attention (JA) is an essential life skill which can indicate the later development of social communication and language acquisition. It is usually absent or impaired in children with autism, which means that they often find it difficult to share attention with an adult or peer about a toy or activity by keeping eye contact and pointing, but also showing interest to the other person. Research on the use of iPads to develop JA skills in autism is still in infancy.

Objectives: This qualitative study aims to explore primary school teachers’ and parents’ perspectives and experiences of developing JA skills in children with autism using iPads.

Methods: Semi structured interviews with 16 school staff members and nonobtrusive observations of 12 pupils interacting with their teacher using iPads were held in three UK schools. Also, parents of children with autism aged 4-11 years old are currently being interviewed to investigate parents’ practice of developing JA beyond school hours and exploring the iPad’s benefits in promoting JA in different contexts.

Results: All teachers used teaching strategies to promote JA on a daily basis but a few used iPads in their classroom. Participants expressed different opinions about the effectiveness of teaching strategies and iPad use in developing JA. The observations showed that teachers used a variety of evidence based strategies to engage their pupils with autism in JA opportunities but that there was little use of iPads. The iPad was mainly used as a reward, a motivator to direct and sustain pupils’ attention, to practice turntaking and waiting skills and to teach the curriculum. Preliminary findings derived from the semi structured interviews with parents have shown that parents use a variety of social activities to boost their child’s joint attention skills. Their views though were contradictory regarding the iPadTM’s contribution in developing JA skills, with a few parents mentioning that the iPad can be a solitary device that can further isolate their child from daily human interactions while other parents have mentioned that the iPad is a motivating tool used to grasp their child’s attention and teach them JA. Parents have also mentioned that they wish to have stronger links with their child’s school.

Conclusions: The research concludes that schools would benefit from teacher training and dissemination of good practice on how to use iPads for JA purposes. Parents are also interested in discovering how they can best address their children’s needs in cooperation with the schools. To that end, the future steps of this research include creating guidelines about the way to develop JA opportunities at home and school with the use of the iPad as an engaging educational device.

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