September 21st 2020

Improving outcomes for SEN children – is technology the key?

In this article, Debbie Craig explores the devastating impact that the Covid-19 lockdown has had on SEN pupils and how technology could hold the key to improving outcomes.

In the month when most pupils returned to school, a concern remains that further school closures will have a disproportionate impact on children with special educational needs (SEN) and those with learning difficulties. Already, multiple year groups have been sent home as their teachers or classmates have tested positive and so families will have to self-isolate.

Autistic pupils who require routine and consistency to help them better understand and learn, have struggled to cope with school closures and the other mental health challenges that lockdown has presented. But technology could hold the key.

Within education, there is a consensus that learning should be inclusive and provide equal opportunities for all pupils, and that nothing should disproportionately impact those with additional education needs. To cement this, in 2019, OFSTED updated its assessment framework to put greater emphasis on SEN children and how they are supported in schools.

But Covid-19 has had a disproportionate effect on SEN learners with many pupils missing their routine and not coping well with heightened anxiety levels and disruptions to their routines.

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition, where autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently. Unlike Covid-19, these neuro diverse characteristics are not easily distilled down into a handful of symptoms. They impair everyday functioning and the three most common characteristics of ASD are difficulties with social interaction, social communication and social imagination.

It is estimated that more than 1% of the population is affected, which equates to 700,000 people in the UK. Including members of their families, this means autism is estimated to be a part of daily life for nearly three million people.

The impact of autism on children’s educational experience is significant. According to the National Autistic Society, 17% have been suspended from school at least once, with nearly half of these suspended three or more times. Shockingly, 4% have been expelled from one or more schools and up to 80% of autistic adults are unemployed.

The use of technology has been a key element in the overall strategy to help children to continue to learn during the pandemic and it could provide a crucial part the SEN remote learning context in the event of a second wave of school closures. Deciding how technology can be deployed is complex.

Before considering the role of technology, it is important to reflect on exactly how it might assist. Firstly, any attempt to use technology to support SEN children must take into account the level of complexity referred to above. In so doing it is helpful to consider three Ds, namely disability, difficulties and differences:

  • The extent to which autism is a disability and in what way can technology improve outcomes.
  • The difficulties autistic children face.
  • How to exploit positive traits in the way autistic children function to take advantage of these differences.

Many autistic pupils have sensory processing impairment, disabilities such as sensitivity to noise, so the best technology solutions base their communication approaches on visual supports and objects of reference, rather than sound.

The difficulties autistic children face can be many and varied and this makes this ‘D’ the hardest to address, particularly as they have been exacerbated by Covid-19:

  • The mental health and wellbeing of the individuals and their families is jeopardised by an increased risk of social isolation.
  • Families need specific advice and guidance in respect of the best way to help autistic children in a context dominated by remote learning and home schooling.
  • Teachers require more targeted resources, better suited to these individuals’ specific needs.
  • Therapist and health workers forced to work at a distance need help with how to actively support families.

The differences offer real possibilities, however. Many autistic children have outstanding attention to detail, can be very focused and display great organisational skills. It is also well established that being able to harness their specific interests as part of a bespoke learning programme can make a huge difference. As an example, a child fascinated by machinery such as lifts, will be able to develop their literacy, numeracy and other skills through studying lift design specifications and manuals. These show that if the technology solution can exploit these bespoke interests, autistic youngsters can quickly make outstanding progress.

The best technology solutions, therefore, help in a number of ways. They remove barriers to learning by overcoming specific autism related issues, such as reducing the stress caused by unexpected change at home and in-school, provide an intuitive and easy to use interface to interlinked resources and activities that help students achieve tasks independently, and they provide the tools to track achievements.

While no technology is likely to address all the elements of such a varied and interconnected set of challenges, solutions developed by those who really understand the distinct, core needs arising from autism will be the most successful.

In simple terms, technology solutions must be based, specifically, on both the nature of the learners’ conditions and the operation of the support network that surrounds the individuals themselves. For this reason the following are key considerations:

  • They should connect key people, such as parents, caregivers, educators and health professionals; providing easy to use channels for communication and collaboration, facilitating their ability work as a remote team.
  • They should be accessible through an app available on smartphones and tablets, providing key features and strategies in one place and reducing the need for multiple devices and a variety of software applications.
  • They must provide consistency, through schedules and routines suited to individual circumstances, and enable the creation of custom visual resources to mitigate unexpected changes and reduce anxiety.
  • They must present appropriately sequenced resources so learners have all of the information they need at the right time and in a manner individuals are able to understand, learn from and act on.
  • They must support families to better manage homelife, providing tools for parents to create visual aids to support learning such as social stories.
  • They should contain tools for teachers to create home learning activities featuring both mood measurement and other feedback features to allow all involved to monitor all aspects of progress and wellbeing, both in an educational setting as well as at home.

Many technology solutions on the market claim to have been developed for neuro-diverse students, but few effectively address the specific needs of these individuals and their families. Fewer still tick off all the features in the list above or were designed with Covid-19 in mind. A platform which does offer support in the short term to those autistic youngsters currently affected by the pandemic would also be of benefit in the longer term and, potentially, in educational settings across the globe struggling to meet the needs of SEN students.

Debbie Craig is a technology CEO and the parent of an autistic child. She has recently secured £50k of Government pandemic response funding to develop BOOP, an app designed to improve learning outcomes of SEN children. Almost in parallel, BOOP has been shortlisted for an INVENT 2020 award.