In your quest to find an appropriate plaything or school for an autistic child, you might wonder about the benefits of standard toys and board games versus digital games and videos. Is there a clear cut answer to which one is better, you might wonder?

The short answer is no and experts are greatly divided over the question. Controversy over the benefits of video games and tv programs has heated up as the proliferation of iPads and smartphones leads parents to download educational games for their children and as classrooms experiment with using various forms of digital media to educate students in budget-stretching times.

In September the New York Times released an article examining this issue (not for autistic children specifically, but for children generally). It found that the results supporting academic improvement due to digital media have been mixed and inconclusive.

Birth of the Educational Technology Movement

The Times traces the movement to push educational technology into the classroom to 1997, when a committee established by President Clinton comprising of educators like the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CEO’s of technology companies recommended that spending on technology in schools increase by billions of dollars. It says that since those roots, the proponents of educational technology have changed their priorities from building the technology to complement teaching to a reverse vision of the classroom–one in which the teaching revolves around technology. The evidence cited to support such initiatives typically draws from case studies, such as one study of eight-graders in Maine whose writing scores improved after they were given laptops in 2002. An issue with generalizing from such studies is that classes and schools vary widely and technology changes quickly. For example, schools in rich areas already tend to have high scores, making gains harder to come by, while poor schools may have more fundamental issues that need to be addressed before children can continue advancing in school.

Results From Studies of Educational Technologies Have Been Mixed

Although some large scale studies show educational improvements from using technology, smaller studies often show the opposite, such as math scores dropping after using technology to teach it. A spokesman for a nonpartisan educational nonprofit group interviewed in the article thinks that laptop programs may just be augmenting what is happening in class by making good teachers better since they make good use of computers and bad teachers worse as their students get distracted by technology.

The article says that controversy over educational media is especially relevant right now as many schools face budget cuts and investments in digital technology that commonly run into hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per school compete with such things as energy efficiency improvements, teacher salaries, and even basic school supplies for funding. It ends by quoting a parent who asks says we need to answer the key question, “Do we really need technology to learn?” before schools decide to continue investing heavily in digital technologies.

Take-Aways

What points should a parent or relative of an autistic child take away from this article, and how does it relate to your particular situation? I think it brings to the forefront several important issues if you are deciding between buying a standard toy or educational video games/tv shows for an autistic child, or if you are deciding between schools that focus on digital educational tools vs standard teaching techniques:

  • Technology may be useful in moderation, but be wary of using it for the majority of your child’s play time or learning time
  • Be wary of schools that market themselves as being technologically savvy and charge you a higher premium for these technology-focused teaching techniques, as studies about whether this actually improves learning have been mixed
  • Video games and videos can’t replace person-to-person interacting for communicating lessons and teaching social skills, although they can augment a traditional learning curriculum.
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