Assistive Technology & ADHD: A Guide for Parents & Students

Joe Tedesco

Technology is all around us, providing for many of the conveniences we enjoy in a modern society. At the same time, a genre of technology remains shrouded in mystery and can be a serious source of frustration. The technologies that are designed to help individuals with learning challenges resulting from the effects of ADHD.

Those ‘special’ technologies, known as assistive technologies, were isolated for a long time. In their early years, when they became the source of discussion with parents and students, they took on a certain stigma. Many students shied away from them, avoiding the appearance of being different. Parents were skeptical, fearful of the unknown.

With increased availability and use of technology, there has been a gradual and steady merging of assistive and mainstream technologies. Not only have the features of assistive technologies become more ubiquitous, but the technologically skills of the average person/student has improved. Video game consoles, smart phones and tablets are extensions of our lives, and are defining how we interact with the people and resources around us. They encourage the use of technology, and encourage the building of skills.

In addition, voice activated and controlled features are available in our homes and our cars. Technologies like voice dictation, text-to-speech (reading apps), math writers and auto word completion, are standard features on new hardware. These are exciting advancements for people who needed them. Cost is no longer a prohibitive factor, and students are less and less likely to feel that using technology will make them stand out.

Now, though students have softened to the idea of using technology, two things still stand in their way:

  • realistic expectations of what technology can do, and
  • a solid strategy for effective adaptation of educational technologies

Setting Expectations for Technology

Expectations seem to grow with every introduction of the next best thing, and those expectations have a significant effect on successful use of assistive technology. Skills related to using technology do not necessarily coincide with the knowledge of why and how we need to use the technology. The balance of technology, skills and know-how – and especially the ‘know why’ – is critical for understanding the assistive technology landscape and challenges.

As an Assistive Technology Practitioner, my work has become as much about helping students find technology, as it is helping them maximize what they have, wading through the numerous resources that are available.

Moreover, I work harder than ever to help students understand how the technology can help them. While students are willing to use technology, they often lack the fundamental understanding of the educational tasks they need to complete. Therefore, they don’t understand why the features of the technology have been developed.

For example, they may know that they need help with writing – but they don’t understand the process for writing, collecting and organizing information, much less standard rules of grammar. Access to technology does not automatically address those skills.

Typical students spend years learning to write using a pen or pencil. They have time to develop an understanding of the letters, the way the pencil reacts to the paper, how to use enough pressure to write. Eventually they are encouraged to write words, then sentences and so on. Their skills build gradually over time. Typical students are also exposed to well written text in books, and begin to appreciate and build and understanding of how to write better. They learn how to organize their thoughts about a single subject.

Students who struggle with writing and reading, on the other hand, literally can go for years distracted by the rudimentary skills of writing. They miss out on the reason they are learning the skills. They are not routinely given appropriate alternative tools (assistive technology) until they are much older. Often, by that time, they are required to learn to use the technology and apply the concepts of a skill they have never really been able to practice.

When students are introduced to a technology, and encouraged to use it when they have no idea how, or more importantly ‘why’ the features will help them meet their educational tasks, it is a recipe for failure. Without a connection between the purpose and the task, they often abandon the technology, leading to a sense of hopelessness and frustration.

Establishing Strategies for Best Applying Adaptive Technologies

A sensible solution to maximizing the effectiveness of assistive technology begins with a simple strategy. Identifying helpful technology should mark the start of a plan to support a students as their needs evolve along with their educational requirements.  With a combination of technology, training and coaching, students can expect a more successful outcome. This approach builds familiarity with the technology, and increases a student’s understanding of what is expected of them in the educational task.

So, when children are given assistive technology recommendations, ask about and request training for them and their support team (parents, teachers, tutors). Plan to incorporate tutoring and academic coaching so that they will be given the opportunity to learn ‘how’ and ‘why’ they will use the features found in the technology to complete their work.

At AMAC, we have developed TechMatch, an assistive technology assessment service that provides a starting point for taking the next steps in adopting technology. For more information about TechMatch and other educational accommodation services available through AMAC visit: http://amacusg.org/amaced.php

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