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Matching Special Needs Students with Technology

  • September 08, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

Technology has brought a lot of benefits to teachers and students, including some unintended benefits that are emerging. An interesting one is the positive impact that technology is having for special needs students. Assistive technology is nothing new, but new online learning apps are now offering a wider range of opportunities to serve the needs of a varying range of students’ unique and individualized needs.

In the past, children with learning disabilities received assistive technology separately from other students. Today’s technology is making these separations less necessary, as individualized and personalized learning becomes increasingly the norm, and a wide range of apps and devices exist to meet varying students’ needs.

Many opportunities to engage students with an array of special needs now exist. As the Think Inclusive website notes, “Over the past few years, there has been a push to ensure that every student is able to participate equally in the classroom. The past assumptions that special education must be a separate entity from general education is fading. It is giving way to filling the desks with a rich and diverse student landscape.”

Children with Autism

Children with autism can struggle in typical learning environments because of the challenges they may face with socialization and communication. A group of apps called Visual Scene Displays, a type of augmentative and alternative communication, provides detailed context to common situations and can be useful for especially low-functioning communicators. For example, Tobii Sono Flex turns symbols into speech to help less-verbal children communicate. Other useful Visual Scene Display apps include Scene Speak, TouchChat, and Look2Learn.

Educators in large and small districts are also finding success with VizZle®. This special education software makes creating and sharing customized, interactive visual activities simple. Whether they are using the software on computers, tablets or printed versions of materials, students are showing teachers how much more they know than they are able to demonstrate through other learning tools. Technology transforms 21st century classrooms to give students the chance to express themselves better through apps and software similar to VizZle.

Even the suddenly popular Pokémon GO app is proving to positively impact children with autism and Asperger syndrome. The app allows autistic children to develop a sense of independence and gets them outside walking around trying to catch the digital creatures. Ali Perryman, a psychiatric specialty counselor at the Theiss Early Autism Program, says autistic children are more interested in electronic activities whereas pencil-and-paper tasks don’t hold their focus and adds that “Virtual environments comfort these people and provide them with predictability and structure.”

Technology is also providing an opportunity for better understanding of the challenges students with special needs face. For example, the National Autistic Society (NAS) in the United Kingdom created a couple of short videos that allows the non-autistic to experience episodes of sensory overload. The virtual reality setup of NAS’s clips puts the viewer in a position to conceptualize what it might be like to live with autism.

Children with Dyslexia

Dr. Michael Hart, an expert on dyslexia, has written a five-part series with Core of Education on the impact that ed tech is having for affected children and is showing promise even beyond its intended purpose. For students that struggle with language processing, technology provides alternatives teaching methods that make engaging dyslexic students easier. Online courses are an excellent option, because the incorporation of multimedia elements like videos, graphs, pictures, and audio lessons are interesting ways to disseminate information. He mentions as well that tablets can introduce a multisensory component to learning.

Newer technology, like 3-D printing, has also shown promise for engaging students with dyslexia. While language processing may be challenging for these students, spatial geometry is an area they tend to excel in, and 3-D printing demands this skill. To successfully produce and master 3-D printing, one must be able to envision the object they creating and how individual parts will come together to form an end product. This technology allows dyslexics to leverage their strong suits and think creatively too.

Children with Attention Deficit Disorder

Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have a difficult time focusing. Stephen Tonti, a senior directing major at Carnegie Mellon, has a TED Talk discussing ADHD and frames it as a difference in cognition rather than a deficit. He tells about personalized learning that works for him and notes that “We are attention different, not attention deficit. Because it is treated and misunderstood as a disorder, it’s treated as something that needs fixing. So the idea seems to be that we need to get rid of my ADHD, but there’s no getting rid of it. There’s just sedating it.”

For Tonti, the attention given to him by middle and high school teachers allowed him free expression and helped him find his passion. Personalized learning, and the use of ed tech, allows instructors the ability to offer students a wide array of ways to engage with classwork beyond the typical “sit in your seat and listen” approach.

Takeaway: When it comes to engaging and educating students of all backgrounds and all types of special learning needs, today’s ed tech now offers the variety and flexibility to provide personalized learning experiences in new and increasingly creative ways. Whether you’re looking to increase engagement or wanting to enrich a curriculum with deeper concepts, a new class of educational apps provides options for expanded study. A focus on personalized learning and the technologies mentioned in this article are bringing studies of all student needs together to overcome separations that existed in the past. Ultimately, these insights offer teachers, parents, and students new advantages and opportunities.


1. “2016 Determination Letters on State Implementation of Idea” U.S. Department of Education. July 10, 2016.
2. “What Does ESSA Mean for Special Education?” Education Week. December 10, 2015.
3. “8 Examples of Assistive Technology in the Classroom” Think Inclusive. January 15, 2015.
4. “The Technology That’s Giving Students with Autism a Greater Voice” The Huffington Post. April 20, 2015.
5. “Technology Transforms the Autism Classroom” Monarch Center for Autism. Fall 2011.
6. “Pokémon GO Succeeds in Giving Children with Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome a Sense of Belongingness” Parent Herald. August 10, 2016.
7. “Assistive Edtech: How Technology Helps Students with Dyslexia” EdTech Times. October 2, 2014.
8. “How 3-D Printers Help Learners Overcome Dyslexia” EdSurge. July 4, 2015.
9. “Creating Individualized Learning Experiences” Lenovo Education. November 17, 2015.
10. “Virtual Reality Video Shows What It’s Like to Be Autistic” Newsweek. June 9, 2016.
11. “Expand Learning Opportunities with Windows & Chrome Apps” Lenovo. 2016.