UKEdMag: Autism and iPad deployment by @simon_elliott

First published in the April 2017 edition of the UKEdChat Magazine

Autism: The educational landscape has changed over the last five years as education institutions explored the introduction of tablet-devices, but often the “why?” was not considered until after they had been distributed in the school.

When Mounts Bay Academy introduced iPads in 2011, we had engaged in a long process of exploration, but we still wanted to know what effect the iPads had on student progress.

This article originally appeared the March 2017 edition of UKEdMagazine

Choosing a narrow focus for research is important, so we chose to look at the impact on students who have Asperger’s Syndrome or who have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and, in doing so, we had to investigate the progress amongst the wider school community.

The school has just under a thousand students on-roll so the data-gathering exercise looked at the sub-divided National Curriculum levels for every subject, six times per year in the year before the 1:1 roll-out and in the year after. Progress was then analysed and compared, calculating a difference in levels. A positive difference would indicate that the use of the iPads had a positive effect. Breaking the students down into groups (gender, learning abilities etc.) allowed the research question to be addressed. Attitudinal surveys were also undertaken to see how students felt about the usefulness of the devices.

Before analysing the impact of digital devices on the educational progress of students who have Aspergers Syndrome or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, it is necessary to look at past research into these conditions and how the educational system has affected their progress. At the same time, the literature poses questions as to how technology can be a part of these strategies, even where this was not originally considered.

The British Columbia Department of Education in the 2000 work “Teaching Students with Autism” wrote that;

“The most strongly recommended approach for teaching students with autism is to use visual aids. Students often demonstrate relative strengths in concrete thinking, rote memory, and understanding of visual-spatial relationships, and difficulties in abstract thinking, social cognition, communication, and attention. Pictographic and written cues can often help the student to learn, communicate, and develop self-control.”

When one considers the strengths of tablet-computer devices, we can see that the ability to present rich visual information to students should be a positive factor. It should also be remembered how important work organisation and communication skills are in the effective teaching of the Autistic student, however these are not the only areas where the curriculum should be addressed.

As Connelly et al. in the under-publicised document from 2004 “Students with Autism: Strategies for accessing the curriculum key stages 3&4” tell us about the science curriculum;

“The use of IT is a powerful tool in giving (ASD) pupils the organisation they need as well as being able to retrieve information when they need it… The pupils with ASD will have difficulty in understanding diagrams if presented afterwards, isolated from the actual experiment”

So the question became more than just about the iPads but whether the way that they were used could have a positive impact.

Attitudinally, the iPads were seen as useful by the students (averaging just under 7/10) and comments from staff were particularly insightful. One teaching assistant observed:

“They (The Autistic student) uses theirs to email me, telling me I’m funny and asking me to come and look at their work. They also sends me pictures that they think I’ll like and ones of their dog. Bearing in mind that their statement says they do not understand humour or empathy, I think the tablet-device has given them an implement they can show they do feel and understand these.

They would not have this tool at home due to family circumstance and being able to email me during the school day to see their work or when they have a problem has been a real bonus for them, though perhaps a little stalkeresque for me!!”

So it was clear that the iPads had a positive impact on students’ attitude to learning, but what about the hard data?

The picture was more complex. For most students, there seemed to be a negative impact in Science and Languages. On investigation, it became clear that, for science the iPads were used in a substitutional mode and, to achieve a positive impact, apps that helped students better understand concepts would be more effective for the average student, however students on the spectrum gained nearly three quarters of a level more than the peer-group.

In languages, autistic students fared worse. Again, it seemed that the teaching methods needed to adapt to fully use the capabilities of the iPads. This drew me back to the work of Connelly et. al. and the lack of understanding of how to deliver a curriculum that is inclusive of those with particular needs.

Introducing technology, such as iPads, make this even more important.

You can find the full research report at:

Simon @simon_elliott is a Leading Practitioner (Computing) and an Apple Distinguished Educator in the south west of England.


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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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