This post was created by PGCert participants in Team Pluto as part of their assessment for Unit 1 of the course. The brief was to evaluate technologies that could help students with specific learning needs to learn more effectively.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is one the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by persistent impairment in reciprocal communication and social interactions as well as restricted repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities.
In 1943, Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore
wrote a seminal article called ‘Autistic disturbances of affective contact’, the first published description of autism. He described the behaviour of 11 children in his clinic without the social instinct to orient towards other people, who “were mostly focused or even obsessed with objects” and who had a “resistance to (unexpected) change” (Silberman, S, 2015). Just one year later, Hans Asperger, a paediatrician from University of Vienna, wrote about a group of children with almost similar pattern of behaviours as Kanner’s.
The condition is evident in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and diagnosis is complex. Autism is currently conceptualized as a spectrum disorder with significant variations in patients’ social, communicative and intellectual abilities. According to Lisa Campisi et al., symptoms lead to significant impairment in multiple domains of adaptive functioning (2018). Individuals suffering from ASD need varying levels of psychosocial support to achieve relative independence.
According to Gardiner and Iarocci, students diagnosed with autism have a varying degree of communication deficits. These deficits range from monotonous speech, echolalia, pronoun reversal, poor comprehension to a complete lack of spoken language (2014). Nonverbal communication is also impaired and may include poor eye contact, difficulties in understanding facial expressions and descriptive gestures, to name a few. Another important feature of individuals with ASD is deficits in socio-emotional reciprocity. These individuals are less likely to initiate conversation, show less interest in peer interactions and overall find it difficult to adjust their behaviour according to different social situations.
In the university context, research shows that in recent years there has been a substantial increase in the number of ASD students entering university, however, it has been estimated that the prevalence of university students with ASD is approximately 1%. Despite this increase in enrolment, only a small minority of students with ASD have successfully completed their university education, and this suggests that many ASD students are not reaching their full academic potential.
Hastwell et. al (2013) point out that difficulties associated with the core characteristics of autism include: coping with the lack of structure, predictability of university activities, difficulties engaging in academia-related work, and interacting with peers and university staff. ASD individuals entering university education are also more likely to develop mental health conditions including social anxiety and depression as well as higher levels of aggression and hostility, significantly impacting their ability to cope with the day-to-day challenges of university life.
Students with ASD are challenged when it comes to note taking and often lack organizational skills regardless of their intelligence or age. This can hinder their ability to respond well to assignments, deadlines and can be detrimental to their overall learning potential. They often find it hard to listen and write at the same time, organise their notes and summarise all their thoughts on paper. There are a number of digital technologies that can assist towards a more organised notetaking system, however one that seems to be particularly easy to access and use is ‘Google Keep’ or the “Digital Post It” app. ‘Google Keep’ has many great features, included; drafting to-do lists that can be tag with time and location reminders, a voice recording function transcribes into text, an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) feature that allows you to extract and convert text from a Bitmap image to a text file. The app also allows the user to label all notes and categorise them for better organisation, for example, once a ‘label’ is opened, all the notes linked to that label open up too
There are a plethora of positive attributes to the app. Firstly it is free to use with a Google account (also free to create). It is also extremely collaborative as one can share their notes with others. Google Keep also has the ability to pull in text from a variety of sources (audio, pictures, & drawings). The downside of ‘Google Keep’ is that it may not be as suitable for lecture notes as they tend to be lonerg and each ‘note’ you create has a character limit. In addition to this, there is also no formatting option within the note, nor is it possible to adjust the size of each note.
“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.” (Blume, 1998)
It is the duty of educators and HEIs to provide all students with the necessary tools to respond equally to the learning requirements of their education and to enable them to excel.
Google Keep is not designed exclusively with ASD individuals in mind, however the multiplicity of options provided for taking down notes and ideas could be very useful for ASD students, in addition to allowing for collaboration with others.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2015) Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism. University of Cambridge: Perspectives. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2815%2900337-2
(Accessed 3rd February 2020)
Blume, H. (1998) ‘Neurodiversity On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom’, The Atlantic, September. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/09/neurodiversity/305909/ (Accessed: 4 February 2021).
Campisi, L., Imran, N., Nazeer, A., Skokauskas, N. and Waqar Azeem, M. (2018) Autism spectrum disorder, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 127, Issue 1, September 2018, (91–100) https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldy026
Gardiner, E. And Larocci, G (2014). ‘Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the University Context: Peer Acceptance Predicts Intention to Volunteer’ In
J Autism Dev Disord (44), 1008–1017.
Hastwell, J. et al. (2013) Asperger Syndrome Student Project, 2009-12: Disability Resource Centre: University of Cambridge, p. 60. Available at: https://www.disability.admin.cam.ac.uk/files/asprojectreport2013.pdf (Accessed: 4 February 2021).
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, (2), 217–250.
Siew CT, Mazzucchelli TG, Rooney R, Girdler S (2017) A specialist peer mentoring program for university students on the autism spectrum: A pilot study. PLoS ONE 12(7): e0180854. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0180854
Silberman, S. (2015) NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People who Think Differently. Australia: Allan and Unwin.