Imagine being a student with autism in a typical elementary school classroom. The environment is overrun with sensory input that you can not ignore. At any given time, a teacher wearing flowery perfume and a garishly colorful outfit is talking in her best projecting voice while standing in front of a whiteboard filled with words written in different colored markers. Students around the room are moving in their seats, opening and closing books, tearing out sheets of paper, while the air conditioner kicks on and whirs to life, making the papers and posters hung on the walls flutter in all areas of periphery. The plants on the windowsill smell earthy and slightly rotten. The intercom interrupts class with a school-wide announcement from the principal for all teachers to remember to turn in their attendance forms. The chairs the children sit in are cold and nubbly textured, the desktop is smooth with dancing fake wood grain images, and the tag inside the autistic student’s shirt is literally stabbing him in the spine.
Now teach him to read
If the numbers are to believed, public education is about to be inundated with students who have a diagnosis somewhere on the autism spectrum. The recent numbers suggest that one out of every 150 children and one out of every 95 boys falls somewhere within the walls of that diagnosis. Whether there is an increased number of incidences due to environmental or genetic factors or whether better screening and diagnostic information has driven this new statistic, the fact remains that the numbers of students across the country who bring the very unique challenges of autism with them to school are on the rise.
One of the puzzling things about autism is that there is no one conceptual picture of what it means to have autism. These students are as individual as any neuro-typical children, so there is no blanket instructional protocol for teaching students with autism. However, there are many characteristics that autistic children often have in common with each other, and the use of e-readers in the classroom can meet head-on many of the challenges that arise when trying to reach students on the spectrum.
One of the biggest challenges in teaching and interacting with an autistic student is the sensory integration issues. In the memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Aspberger’s, by John Elder Robison, the author describes the horrible onslaught of sensory information and overload that can happen, to the point that he felt almost as though he could not use all five sense at the same time. A traditional public school classroom is awash in overstimulating input, sounds and images that the rest of the students find comforting and engaging but that can be physically painful to a student with autism.
That is where e-readers can become invaluable. By allowing the student with autism to learn in a more isolated and independent way, he can essentially connect with the device in a manner that is less stimulating. At the risk of sounding insulting, to both the students and e-readers as a whole, an e-reader would be more… boring.
In the case of students who are struggling to learn subject matter and classroom skills while battling against sometimes painful stimuli, boring is good. With the read-aloud feature sending a volume controlled monotone voice through the headphones, external aggressors are blocked out and the student can concentrate on the calm, black-and-white words in front of him instead of a textbook that has practically vomited splashes of color and sidebar illustrations across every page. As the pages turn automatically, the student will not need to exert his low fine motor skills or succumb to the ear-stabbing irritation of hearing the paper scratch across the surface of the next page.
More important to the academic success of students with autism, e-readers can help bridge the senses. According to Robison’s memoir, it can be very difficult to see new information flash across the e-reader’s screen while hearing the voice reading the words, but with enough practice hopefully the students can form a vital connection between information they see and information they hear, a skill that the rest of society takes for granted.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for using e-readers with autistic students, or students receiving any type of special education services, for that matter, is the cost. With the competitive pricing that e-reader companies are providing now, this may be the most cost-effective and least obsolete equipment that schools purchase for a long time to come.