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Ed Tech for Neurodivergent Students Has Come a Long Way

A Jan. 22 report from the Office of Educational Technology and Office of Special Education Programs dispels the myths of assistive technology devices and shares improvements that experts have witnessed in that space.

Illustration of three small people in front of two silhouettes of human heads facing each other. The inside of the silhouette on the left shows the alphabet in order, while the inside of the silhouette on the right shows the alphabet all jumbled up.
Connor Archer still has a 2004 Mac iBook G4 laptop computer in his office. He doesn’t use it, but he thinks about it daily.

Archer was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and remained nonverbal until 5. When the youngster struggled, his mother encouraged him to type something, anything, on that laptop. Archer embraced the challenge and gradually wrote a collection of short stories. During high school and college, digital translation tools helped him with foreign language assignments.

Now 25, Archer was awarded an MBA from Husson University in 2021 and became the CEO of the nonprofit he founded, the Courageous Steps Project. The organization supports inclusive learning projects in Maine.

“Using a pen and paper was never my strong suit. Keyboarding worked for me, but everybody’s different,” Archer said. “Results may not show in the minute, but they will eventually. It takes time and patience. I wouldn’t be successful without the presence of technology in my life.”

Archer’s recollection coincides with the U.S. Department of Education’s recently updated National Educational Technology Plan for 2024, which calls for improved accessibility and inclusivity measures in public schools. And on Jan. 22, the Office of Educational Technology and the Office of Special Education Programs released new guidance titled “Myths and Facts Surrounding Assistive Technology Devices and Services.”

The Jan. 22 report dispels 28 common misconceptions about assistive technology in education. Chief among them: Educators have no responsibility to provide training on assistive technology devices to children or their families (Myth 5); the need for assistive technology stops after high school (Myth 7); assistive technology always involves an electronic device and is always high-tech (Myth 9); an assistive technology device and service that works for one child will work for all children (Myth 12); the use of assistive technology devices lowers a child’s motivation because it does the work for them (Myth 16); and there are limited funding sources for assistive technology devices and services (Myth 28).

The Council for Exceptional Children, an international professional organization that advocates for disabled and gifted students, is optimistic these reports will raise awareness not only of existing regulations, guidelines and available resources for incorporating assistive technology in classrooms, but also of how much the technology has evolved, said Sarah Howorth, a council member and associate professor of special education at the University of Maine. She also serves as program director for Maine Access to Inclusive Education Resources, an informational resource organized by the state and university to help people navigate programs and services for students with disabilities.

The term “neurodivergent” encompasses autism, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it’s not limited to those three conditions, Howorth said, adding that any learning plan for students in that category must be individualized for maximum success. While no one tool fits all, she said, communicative tools that give students a voice, from the early Dynavox text-to-speech device, to phone apps that provide the same functions, were game changing.

Maine stipulates a computer or tablet for every student (1:1), Howorth said, “but people may not be aware that the tool [text to voice] is already on there.”

She said the emergence of video technology as an assistive tool has been equally impressive, citing HP Reveal as a great tool for neurodivergent students because it allowed them to learn about objects by simply snapping a photo and then viewing informative content prompted by their actions. HP no longer makes that augmented reality tool, but Halo or other technologies that trigger instructional videos in the same fashion are suitable replacements, Howorth explained.

She said it’s exciting to think about the role artificial intelligence will play in assistive technology, though she cautioned that any new tool, no matter how impressive, must be a good fit with the student’s individualized learning plan and not a shortcut to achievement.

“Think of the learning objectives first,” she said. “Is it [the AI-powered tool] helping the student, or just doing the work for them?”

Several new technologies and services that help neurodivergent K-12 learners have emerged in recent years. The AI-powered Dysolve helps correct dyslexia through gamification activities. Social Cipher, which also uses gamification, helps with social-emotional learning. And Learnfully is a digital networking tool that helps families connect with a variety of educational specialists.

At the college level, assistive technology has also come a long way, according to Allen Harrison Jr., assistant dean for accessibility resources at Hamilton College in New York. When he began working at the small liberal arts college in 2006, audiobooks were abundant, but the tools for converting sound to text, or vice versa, were in their infancy, hard to come by and glitchy at best. But now, reader pens and smart pens, which allow users to access audio recordings just by pointing to sections of their notes, are commonplace.

Hamilton College has about 2,000 students. Harrison said almost 300 of them are registered with his office this year, up from less than 100 in 2006. During that time span, the school found that many learning disabilities are difficult to identify before age 18, and in response to that, it began offering neuropsychological testing on campus. Many students don’t have learning disabilities but mental health issues that affect learning, and some have a combination of the two.

Moreover, Harrison added, his office’s collaboration with the entire campus community has evolved with the technology. Professors have learned how to assist in the text-to-speech process, and the library and information technology departments work closely to assure that any written learning materials can be converted to other formats. And the entire student body participates in annual “neurodiversity” celebrations that include workshops and social events.

“‘Accessibility and equity’ is a popular topic on this campus, and the students want to be advocates,” Harrison said.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.