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Digital Tools Support Students on the Autism Spectrum (Guest Post)

by Aileen Hower

Digital tools that have proven helpful in supporting students on the autism spectrum to express their thoughts better in writing are those that allow them to create comic strips and videos. Likewise, digital tools like QR codes, podcasts, and interactive sites like BookFlix and TrueFlix can support a student’s reading more efficiently and effectively. 

Sites like Bitstrips, MakeBeliefsComix , ComicLife, or ToonDoo help students who can be reluctant writers. While students still meet the requirement to share their thoughts in writing, less overall writing is required, while the same amount of depth of thought remains. Also, with students who typically struggle to express complete thoughts in writing, an illustration adds a visual (symbolic) representation to any written product, thereby allowing the student to show in a more sophisticated manner, what they understand. Having to add a picture to the writing supports the development of the student’s nonverbal language skills as well. Finally, students can tap into their artistic talent to show their knowledge, which increases their motivation for completing work. It also helps them feel successful in the classroom.

The following is an example of a student completing a vocabulary study of the root, -ject:

Ject root

Cartooning allows for a more interactive and dynamic way to study vocabulary and express knowledge learned. An additional benefit to the work is how it shows the student’s humor, which is not clearly expressed in person. This work was created using Bitstrips by a student on the autism spectrum.

Comic strips can also be used to show learning in the content area. The following is an example of how a student created work on Bitstrips to express his understanding of the scientific method:


In this work, the student’s use of a text box to show the passage of time is a sophisticated expression of detail in writing to describe this experiment.

Video tools such as Animoto can help students express their ideas in a similar way. This example is of a student defining geometry terms as a formative assessment in math class. This helps a student on the spectrum, who can struggle with semantic and pragmatic understandings of vocabulary, show an explicit example of what the word means. Additionally, it does not require the student to express his or her understanding in words only, which can find the student just copying the first definition from the dictionary onto the worksheet, regardless of the context in which the word was used. Finally, Animoto is a great tool for all students to add pictures, captions, video, and music to leave a visual paper trail of learning.

Another example of a video being useful in class was replacing a socially difficult requirement of standing in front of the class to give a book talk. In the case of this video , the student needed to take the point of view of the main character in a book of the student’s choosing and comment upon how that character felt about the book. The difficulties, in addition to presenting in front of peers, was taking another’s point of view, pretending to be the character, and then speaking as the character, creatively. These requirements became much more manageable with the ability to videotape this performance in the safety of one’s home and show it in class, thereby still meeting all of the requirements of the assignment.

For reading, the use of QR codes can help students who struggle to differentiate between main ideas and details, what aspects or types of reading to hone in upon, to complete a specific assignment. In her blog post entitled, Tools of the Trade: Quick Response (QR) Codes, Rita Sorrentino shares some QR-specific resources:

  • Steven Anderson (@web20classroom) posted a LiveBinder for QR Codes with links to tutorials, interesting educational uses, and recommended apps for specific devices.
  • Tony Vincent (@tonyvincent) writes extensively on integrating mobile technology into teaching and learning. In What’s Up with QR Codes, Tony offers best tools to use for generating and reading codes, clever ideas for classrooms, and an opinion on use, overuse, and best practices.
  • Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne) from Free Technology for Teachers has shared several articles on this topic. You might find some innovative uses for back-to-school night in Three Things to do With QR Codes On Back-to-School Night, and ideas for fun learning in Send You Students on a QR Code Treasure Hunt.

Podcasts can support a student’s understanding of the words on the page by bringing them to life. Many times, students on the spectrum struggle to understand the “nonverbal” information an author is sharing on the page: dashes, ellipses, requiring the reader to understand information through what individuals do instead of having them explicitly say what they are thinking or feeling. An audio version of the text can help to support a student’s comprehension by adding in the verbal component to accompany the visual component.

Finally, for younger students, Scholastic’s BookFlix provides popular fiction texts and pairs them with a nonfiction texts to bring those books to life. Students have the choice of having the text read to them, and being able to digitally interact with the texts. While not a free resource, many of public libraries fund this interactive resource, which can be used by teachers and students in the community. Another resources, with incredible non-fiction texts is Scholastic’s TrueFlix. This resource lets students explore their interests through reading by listening and viewing rich texts.

Aileen Hower is Reading Supervisor for South Western School District. A key member of Keystone State Reading Association’s leadership team, she spends time posting events on twitter, presenting at meetings and to local reading councils, and organizing twitter chats. Additionally, Aileen is a co-chair for the Keystone to Reading Secondary Book Awards Committee and a Regional KSRA Director. She helps to organize Penn State University’s York Campus summer institute and open conference in June as well as Eduspire’s Literacy Conference in Lititz, PA in August. Aileen is currently working on her first book for Stenhouse Publishers. She loves being a mom, spending time with her family and friends, reading and writing.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rita Sorrentino #

    Thank you for sharing such a rich array of digital tools for today’s digital kids. Your suggestions cover a wide range of skills to help students make meaningful connections with text (and life). I’m a big fan of podcasts and like your suggestion of using an audio version of the text to help support comprehension by pairing it with the visual component. Students will certainly benefit from exploring these possibilities and finding the right tool for the right task.


    December 9, 2015
  2. janiceewing #

    I also think the idea of using Animoto or other video tools to encourage students to present information without being the focal point themselves can be enormously helpful. As you pointed out, this can be a great learning experience and formative assessment.


    December 8, 2015
  3. I love the suggestion of using the comic strips for vocabulary study. Not only do they help the student creating the comic to learn the vocabulary, but they can also be posted as reminders for everyone else. I will definitely use this in my high school classroom.


    December 7, 2015

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