They don’t make toys like they used to. It’s not uncommon to still see the dolls and action figures of yesteryear, but as we have progressed scientifically and experienced innovative breakthroughs across technologies, toys today are more than that. They’re interactive companions, sometimes designed from a pure entertainment perspective. And, more often than not, they are keenly developed as a medium of education to foster personal development and growth.
Technology is increasingly becoming a part of nearly every facet of our lives—which means it makes sense to introduce modern tech toys and gadgets early on to children, under supervision, to build familiarity with how these devices work. These devices are especially impactful for children with autism, as they can be used to build on social development in a controlled environment without fear of rejection from their peers. Recent examples of these toys include Ozobot, Romibo, Dash, and Leka (the robotic smart toy to be released in 2017).
These toys have to be smartly integrated; however, these types of interactive gadgets could potentially lead to social withdrawal or general distraction if overused and unguided.
They do have their benefits, though. Dr. Carolyn Jaynes, a learning designer for Leapfrog Enterprises, once told PBS: “By age three, many children are active media users and can benefit from electronic media with educational content. This content often uses strategies such as repeating an idea, presenting images and sounds that capture attention, and using child rather than adult voices for the characters.” It helps to start young, and for children with autism, research shows that children react well with robots and are comfortable interacting with them, as their behavior is predictable.
Supervise, supervise, supervise
Children have curious minds, and such curious minds lend themselves well to distractions—which, in turn, can lead to oversaturation with any given activity. For example, given the chance, a child will probably sit in front of a TV and not try to break away from the mesmerizing cartoons. This is why experts recommend a limit to screen time, because children need it. Unfiltered use, according to research published in Computers in Human Behavior, may inhibit their ability to recognize emotions due to an ensuing lack of social interactions, a difficultly children with autism already cope with. Everything should be in moderation.
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We should approach the use of interactive, robotic smart toys similarly to how we approach a child’s use of television or other forms of media. Robotic smart toys tend to be interactive, but they’re not meant to replace social interaction. Instead, they’re meant for guided use by a parent or teacher to facilitate interaction with others—keeping the human element in check.
Obviously, you want to know whether or not the use of the toy is having a positive impact for your child, correct? To ensure your child is actually receiving the tangible benefits of using these gadgets, it’s important to actively monitor and measure his/her progress over time.
A number of these toys have built-in “status reports” that actively monitor and benchmark how a child is interacting with the device—monitoring platforms that track metrics such as a child’s reaction time to certain prompts or how he/she handles the toy (for example, Leka has this capability embedded into the toy’s feature set). Being able to keep up with and have this degree of transparency of use helps parents, teachers, and caregivers decide how to best integrate any given gadget into a child’s playroom. It lets you see what works, what doesn’t, where the child is excelling, and where he/she needs improvement.
And, if the gadget doesn’t come with any sort of tracking measurements—make one yourself! You can easily compile your own spreadsheet in Excel or Google Docs tracking your own metrics to see what works best for you and your child.
The iPad isn’t everything
Yes, iPads are wonderful, and yes, as proven by some of Apple’s own research, the devices certainly have their place as an educational device.
But don’t pigeonhole your child’s introduction to technology with an iPad. iPads create a closed environment that tends to only foster a human-machine relationship—all actions are done within the constraints of the iPad itself through apps. There isn’t much interaction with the device other than the use of one’s fingers to interact with the touchscreen, and it lacks a focus on social behavior, which is a critical development area for children with autism.
There’s a known connection between the use of hands and the development of the brain—it’s where the impact of “hands on learning” originates. Children need to touch and interact physically beyond a screen; they need to feel texture. These new robotic toys are grounded in movement and their immediate surroundings—the actual use of the device involves the environment. With iPads, however, it’s all within one square box pulled together by a touch screen (unless applications employ new augmented reality technology, which are few and far between save for some very popular apps right now—Pokémon Go, anyone?).
Treat the iPad with the same screen time onus of usage—it’s good in moderation, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of educational technology. Steve Jobs didn’t even let his kids have one!
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism