How to Incorporate Technology to Build a Lifetime of Skills
Tablets, smartphones, and their accompanying apps are part of mainstream society. Their accessibility has not only revolutionized how people learn and function every day—parents and caretakers of individuals with special needs have gained a deeper interest in using these tools to build skills with children.
While these high-tech solutions may be relatively affordable and less stigmatizing than previously used tools, they also require enhanced support to maximize competency in using them efficiently and effectively.
This article will describe how parents and individuals with autism can use apps and built-in features of mainstream devices to build skills that promote independence and, ultimately, improve their quality of life.
It has been reported that adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be highly dependent on family members or assistance programs, with fewer than 20% living independently up to eight years out of high school (Howlin and Moss, 2012; Newman et al., 2011).
The ability to independently complete functional daily living skills promotes autonomy for individuals on the autism spectrum, reduces levels of dependence on others, and improves quality of life for all.
Daily living skills include activities such as getting dressed, doing laundry, and making a meal; the completion of each involving several sequential steps.
Completing these steps can be challenging for individuals with ASD, who tend to be strong visual learners and often have difficulty retaining information that is only presented vocally. The use of visual supports has proven to help with task completion, and advancements in technology have provided various options for creating these supports, such as video prompts.
Video prompting is a mode of teaching that allows learners to view a targeted skill in video segments, rather than in its entirety, before completing the observed step. That is, the learner watches one step, completes it, then proceeds to view and complete subsequent steps until the entire task is completed. Video prompts can be created using various software programs and can be shown on multiple types of platforms, such as computers, tablets, and smartphones.
Having directly worked with families for over a decade, I learned that teaching independent living skills in the natural home environment is often more powerful for students than being taught how to complete these same tasks in a school setting. I witnessed parents be able to teach with their children with disabilities to complete tasks using traditional methods of explaining and showing them how to do them.
Over the years, parents became aware of their children becoming more interested and engaged with advanced technology. Without any guidance or training, many purchased devices with the hope they could use it to teach their children directly. Increasingly, families were seeking assistance to become more competent in using their devices to help their children. This inspired me to research how I could provide this support while working directly with parents.
Three mothers were selected to participate in my study. Each had an adolescent diagnosed with varying degrees of ASD, ranging from autism with limited communication to Asperger’s. I met with each mother individually in her home to discuss the skills they wanted their children to improve and then we met again in the community where I conducted individualized training with each of them.
Each parent learned about video prompting procedures and practiced how to navigate the tablet (an iPad) and access the video prompting app (Picture Scheduler). Each learned a specific way to direct her child to play and watch videos, and, finally, deliver praise for correctly completed steps or provide error correction for steps completed incorrectly.
The training session began with an overview of video prompting, followed by several video demonstrations and live modeling of the procedures, and ended with each parent practicing the steps with me until she was able to deliver all the procedures without my help.
Then, I observed each parent implementing the steps with her child in their individual homes for approximately one hour, two to three times a week, for an average of six weeks. After each session, I met with the mother to provide her with specific feedback. Each parent was able to successfully deliver all the training procedures, resulting in her child independently and correctly completing the steps to his/her targeted daily living skills within 17 sessions.
One child learned to make his bed, another learned to make pasta, and the last learned to tie her shoes (after 10 years of family members and professionals trying with traditional methods!).
What follows are suggested steps for caregivers, professionals, or adults on the autism spectrum seeking to learn how to create and use videos on a tablet or smartphone to increase skills. These tips are based on research and my personal experience in working with and coaching parents directly on the use of mobile devices to help their children learn independent living skills.
Video Prompting: Step-by-Step
• Choose a device with which you are comfortable
There are many devices available that include built-in video options. Bigger and more expensive does not mean better. You will be creating videos, which may also require some editing, so choose a device you are comfortable using. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung…these are some of the many brands that create smartphones and/or tablets that include many useful features. I used Apple iPad© and the Picture Scheduler app to complete and deliver the videos.
• Consider video space needs
Depending on the video quality, it takes approximately 5GB of space to create a 10-minute recording. Remember, if you are using the device to create, store, and view the videos, you will need to consider how many videos you’ll want to keep on it. You can also use an external program to store your videos such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud (Apple users). (Keep in mind these services offer limited free space. You’ll be required to pay for extra storage if you need it.)
• Review the features available
Be sure the device you select has built-in video recording options. If you’re comfortable with technology and would like to have the option of using advanced settings, such as adding text to the video, ask a salesperson to review the recording software on the device before purchasing.
Some devices provide editing options within the default video app itself while others may not, which will then require the download and use of a different app. You do not have to edit the video, but sometimes it helps to edit out errors, so your child is not confused by the prompts.
• Select the target skill
Choose a skill that is meaningful to your child and will promote independence. If this is your first time creating video prompts, I recommend selecting a skill your child has been working on but has not yet mastered. Being familiar with the skill may not only make it easier for you to identify the steps of the sequence but may also help your child be more engaged and confident due to his/her recognizing many of the steps.
• Write the script
Write down the steps of the skill. The number of steps for a skill can vary from a few to many—it is completely dependent on the learner. One suggestion is to record yourself or someone else completing the skill, then, while you watch the recording, write down the steps detailing exactly what is being done.
Again, how small you break down the steps will depend on who will be completing it. You may find your child combines a few steps in the sequence before needing to watch the video or that one step needs to be broken down even further. This is common and perfectly okay. You will adjust as needed.
• Decide on the type of video model
When recording someone completing the skill, you can choose to record the entire person or record only from his/her perspective. This is known as point-of-view modeling and allows the viewer to only see the model’s hands completing the task. A benefit to this option is that there is a reduction of distractions from the surrounding environment which provides the learner the opportunity to focus solely on the step being completed.
If you have someone else model the steps in the task, you will need to allow your child to become used to the video model. Allow him/her to watch it several times without working on the individual steps to become desensitized to the person in the video.
• Create the video prompts
Once you’ve decided on the type of video model, you will use your preferred device to make the recordings. Remember, instead of one long video, video prompts show a sequence of steps. You may choose to record the skill in its entirety and pause the video after each step. However, for consistency, I recommend recording each step as a separate video and label them in numerical order.
As mentioned previously, you will also need to decide if you will keep these video segments on your device for showing your child or if you will transfer them to a separate app. To use this option, you will need to have separate videos for each step.
There are many apps available that allow you to easily upload your videos directly from your device into their program, where you can then place the steps in order and name the task, making it easy to access and organize multiple tasks. (My team and I used Picture Scheduler but there are many similar options available that provide a variety of features for visual and auditory learners.) A YouTube video is available to demonstrate how this app works: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1B6Vnc305Yw.
• Decide on additional prompts
Most video prompts include voice-over support. The voice-over states the step that is being completed. This can be done while recording the model (press record, say the step, then model completes it) or it can be added afterward using editing software.
Depending on your child’s strengths, you may also consider adding text to the video that describes what is happening. For example: Press record and say the step aloud with the text to the screen (ex., “Take pillows off the bed.”). Watch the model complete the step and then press record to stop recording.
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• Provide instruction
Begin by requesting your child complete the task (ex., “John, make your bed.”). Immediately follow this request by directing them to watch the video (ex., “But watch this video first.”). To promote independence, I recommend guiding him/her to press the play button by pointing to it and telling him/her to press play. (If your child has never played a video on a portable device before, you can physically guide his/her finger to touch the play button).
You may also need to ensure your child is attending to the video by directing his/her view and/or pointing to the device’s screen. After he/she has watched the video prompt, provide another direction to complete the step just viewed (ex. “Now you do it.”).
• Praise and correct errors
As your child proceeds through each video prompt, you will need to provide praise and error correction. Initially, you will want to provide praise for every step he/she completes correctly (ex., “That’s correct! Great job!”). Be excited when delivering these statements!
Positively reinforcing steps he/she has completed correctly and independently lets your child know you are watching him/her, encourages him/her to keep doing what he/she is doing, and, most importantly, can make him/her feel good about himself/herself because he/she is succeeding. Use praise statements or gestures (such as high-fives) that are natural to you and your family.
If your child makes an error, have him/her come back to the video prompt and redirect him/her to watch again (ex., “That’s not correct. Try again. Watch the video.”). When correcting an error, it will be important to remain neutral, withholding feelings of disappointment. (Save the emotions for the good stuff, like the praise you deliver when he/she gets the step correct!) If he/she completes the step correctly, provide praise. If he/she doesn’t, assist him/her in completing that step.
Here, you can provide some extra prompting while you complete the step with him/her (ex., “Let me help you with this.” You can show him/her or physically guide him/her to complete the steps by placing your hands on top of his/hers).
Be careful with perseverative behaviors. If your child engages in compulsive or repetitive behaviors (such as repeatedly pressing the play button or requesting to watch the video), you may need to say that he/she may only watch the video twice before completing the step. Or you can press play once (after which, you immediately remove the device away from their access and direct him/her to complete the step he/she just watched). The number of times he/she can re-watch the video for each step will be dependent on your child.
If your child is not making progress on a certain step, assess if your child is attending to the video segment. Decide if that step needs to be broken down into even smaller steps, and/or if he/she needs to watch the video prompt more times (during the completion or even during the day or week for more practice opportunities).
• Consider including a reward system
If your child is not intrinsically motivated to complete the task, consider including a reward system that provides him/her with access to a preferred item, activity, or person for completing a certain number of steps. As he/she completes more steps correctly and independently (that is, without any additional assistance or guidance besides the video), increase the number of steps he/she needs to complete to earn the reward.
To promote independence, you’ll need to consider when and how much to fade the use of the device, your prompts, and the delivery of reinforcing praise statements. Some learners will need to always watch the videos, while others may self-fade using the device altogether.
Some individuals will be able to navigate the device and access the videos independently, while others will always need some assistance. The goal is to help your child achieve an appropriate level of independence, promoting autonomy and improving quality of life.
Cunningham, A. (2019). Counseling adults with autism: A comprehensive toolkit. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis/Routledge
Jankuj, J. (2013). Picture Scheduler (Version 3.1). [Mobile
application software]. Retrieved from https://apps.apple.com/us/app/picture-scheduler/id315050461
App Demo [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1B6Vnc305Yw
This article was featured in Issue 101 – Balancing The Autism Journey