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What Is Assistive Technology?

And how does it benefit children who are struggling?

Writer: Gia Miller

When Evonne Dunn’s son finally received assistive technology in seventh grade, it changed his life. Diagnosed with dysgraphia, speech expressive disorder, ADHD and dyscalculia, he’d struggled in school and was now struggling with school-related anxiety.

“We saw the impact of assistive technology almost immediately,” Dunn recalls. Her son had trouble remembering what he learned in class, regularly lost papers and assignments, and was often unable to complete his homework, all of which made him anxious. “But once he received digital tools that provided him with an organizational structure and addressed his other executive functioning deficits, everything changed,” she remembers. “Assignments were no longer lost, and he began completing them on his own. Then, he began advocating to complete them without modifications, and we saw his anxiety slowly melt away.”

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any product, equipment or system that helps a person with disabilities better manage their daily life. It can help with everything from getting ready each morning to learning in school or participating in activities.

“With assistive technology, there are low-tech and high-tech options,” says occupational therapist Lindsey Biel of Sensory Processing Challenges. In your home, low-tech options could include a checklist for a child’s morning routine or a chore wheel to help them remember when it’s their turn to walk the dog or set the table. High-tech options could include an electronic device with alarms and reminders of what to do next.

In the classroom, assistive technology allows children to learn in the way that works best for them. And it helps students regain the time they typically lose trying to accomplish a task (reading, math, writing, etc.) due to their disabilities. With assistive technology, students can be more engaged in learning and participate in lessons and activities along with their classmates.

There are low-tech and high-tech options available for children in the classroom, too. “Examples of low tech are slant boards, easels and pencil grips to assist with writing,” Biel explains, “while high tech options are iPads, laptops and dictation software.”

Who can benefit?

Any child who struggles to do a task or use materials in the same manner as their classmates can benefit from assistive technology. While a child doesn’t need a diagnosis, there are certain challenges that benefit from assistive technology support in school, including:

  • Executive functioning challenges including distraction, emotional control, impulse control organization, task initiation, working memory
  • Writing difficulties, such as the physical ability to write or express yourself clearly, note taking
  • Gross or fine motor delays or impairments
  • Hearing and vision impairments
  • Speech and language impairments
  • Mathematical challenges
  • Reading difficulties including comprehension, decoding, fluency or spelling

Assistive technology can also help children manage emotional difficulties that interfere with their ability to learn or participate in the classroom. For example, if your child’s anxiety is so overwhelming that they’re focusing on the stressor instead of the teacher, apps like StopBreatheThink, which was designed with teenagers in mind, can recommend an activity to help ease their thoughts. It offers solutions for a variety of emotions, from frustration and resentment to self-criticism or defensiveness.

“Once children know how to use the technology and develop proficiency – because like anything else, there’s a learning curve – you’ll see improvements pretty quickly,” says Biel. “Another thing you’ll probably notice is that assistive technology tends to motivate them, and their attitude begins to improve. Suddenly, all those negative experiences are behind them, and they’re able to do their work in a way that works for them.”

How assistive technology can help

Assistive Technology bridges the gap between what a child knows and what they’re able to communicate. “It makes things easier,” says speech and language pathologist Alexa Brigante who specializes in assistive technology. “When kids have the right support, you can really see more of their true potential and who they are on the inside.”

For example, if a child is struggling with writing, a keyboard can help. “When handwriting is difficult, it requires tremendous concentration and is exhausting,” Biel explains. “So, it’s much easier for them to learn how to type than to learn all those letter formations.” A keyboard allows them to have more energy for thinking and communicating.

If they struggle with the effort it takes to write math problems, Brigante says making math digital through a program like Equatio can solve the problem. “Because math is typically done with paper and pencil, and students are given a very small space to write in, it can be difficult if it’s hard for them to write by hand,” she explains. “But making that digital and providing them the opportunity to use either an Apple pen or their fingertip on a touchscreen so they can ‘handwrite’ the math onto the screen, could change everything.”

Equatio, Brigante adds, can help children with other math challenges as well. “It can provide students with digital manipulatives so they can move groups around on the screen if they’re unable to do the math in their head. And it also offers a variety of digital calculators, like ones for graphing or algebra, that can help students with various math challenges.”

Assistive technology can help kids with complex needs

For children who have complex challenges, assistive technology can be tailored to meet very specific needs.

For example, while a child might benefit from using voice dictation because they struggle to write by hand, they might also have a speech disorder that impedes their ability to fully use that general program.  One solution could be an app called TouchChat that allows them to touch various images or text (depending on their age and reading ability) to create phrases or sentences that the app then says aloud. Another program, Read&Write provides text to speech, speech to text, text and picture dictionaries, etc. to support both reading and writing and challenges.

Co:Writer is a great program that provides word prediction and word generation for children who can type,” says Brigante. “It allows students to insert the topic they’re writing about so the word prediction and generation talks about the academic topic at hand. For example, if they’re writing about the Civil War, there might be some language the student wouldn’t normally utilize, but if they add that topic to their dictionary, they will receive specific suggestions related to that topic.”

Making assistive technology work for your child

Assistive technology, though helpful, isn’t a standalone solution. “Assistive technology is a bridge, but therapy builds the underlying foundational skills,” Brigante explains. “These tools are part of the modifications and accommodations, but they should not replace a skill that needs to be learned or worked towards. Technology is a supplement to be used when appropriate.”

Assistive technology will help your child keep up with their classmates while they continue to receive therapy, even if they are pulled from the classroom for remediation.

“While your child is learning how to read, they can listen to the book, or while they’re learning to write or type better, they can use voice dictation to get their work done,” says Mark Surabian, director of ATHelp, an assistive technology support program at the JCC in Manhattan, and ATTrain, which provides assistive technology training.  “Assistive tech is done in conjunction with remediation so the child can participate in the classroom with their peers right now, and not wait until they’ve gained the skills.”

Assistive technology should grow with your child. The tools kids need to succeed may change as they get older and learning becomes more complex. Kids should be reevaluated annually to make sure the tech they’re using is still working, and to explore other potential tools that might be necessary or beneficial. Often, as kids get older and take more advanced courses, they need new tools to access their education.

Assistive technology benefits everyone

Just like a slanted curb to accommodate wheelchairs benefits people pushing strollers or carts, assistive technology often benefits more than the student who receives it. Dunn says her son is a perfect example.

“When he was finally provided digital access, in the form of a learning management system called Canvas, that technology was rolled out to all the students and teachers on his team, not just to him,” she said. “It benefited all of the students in the class, including some who may have had undiagnosed disabilities. I tell my children that you must think bigger than yourself. You can’t always change the world, but sometimes you can change the world around you.”

Learn how to secure assistive technology for your child here.

This article was last reviewed or updated on March 8, 2022.