Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Working can be a difficult task for many with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, only 15 percent of those with the disorder have some form of paid work in the United States. Difficulties related to cognition, behavior, communication, and sensory processing are among the issues that keep many ASD sufferers from gainful employment.
But now, investigators report that task management and organizational features found in personal digital assistants (PDAs), particularly the Apple iPod Touch, may help people with ASD function in the workplace. Case studies published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation have demonstrated these PDAs as vocational supports for ASD sufferers.
Tony Gentry, PhD, of the Department of Occupational Therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, said: “Strategies that provide enlightened workplace supports are clearly needed in order to help people with ASD find useful work and perform successfully on the job. Adults with ASD often have valuable assets and strengths that are sought after in the workplace, such as logical and mathematical ability, exceptional computer skills, or photographic memory.”
Gentry led a 4-year randomized trial examining the use of the iPod Touch PDAs as job coaching aids in the workplace. Each individual in the study was given a vocational placement and paired with a job coach. Each iPod was programmed by an occupational therapist and included applications geared to each individual´s needs. The suites included task reminders and lists, video prompts, tools for self-management of behavior, and other supportive tools. Participants and job coaches were also trained by the therapist on how to use the iPod Touch as a vocational aid.
One participant in the study, Jeffrey, worked as a custodian at a fast-food restaurant. He had difficulties moving from task to task and had a hard time remembering multiple tasks involved in stocking and cleaning duties. When he became stressed, he would display “calming behaviors,” such as spinning around in circles and humming.
His occupational therapist set reminder alarms on the iPod Touch to cue Jeffrey to move from task to task without the need for repeated alerts from coworkers and bosses. Using the Notes application, step-by-step checklists were created for each of Jeffrey´s tasks ensuring that he could complete them properly.
Within a week of using the iPod Touch, Jeffrey was successfully responding to the reminder cues and checking his task notes. After a year, Jeffrey had continued to use the PDA on the job, and is now recognized as a reliable employee.
The iPod Touch didn´t just work for Jeffrey. Other ASD sufferers, including Grace, a 60-year-old woman who also has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, found that the PDAs were very useful.
For Grace, the PDA helps manage her commute on a specialized transportation bus. If the bus was late, she worried that it had missed her, and she would often leave her purse on the bench and step into the busy street to see if it was coming. Now, reminders alert her when to go to the bus stop and to call the transportation company if the bus is late.
A custom-made video shows Grace how to wait for the bus safely, and the steps to take if the bus doesn´t arrive. Her iPod Touch also helps her move from task to task and manage her daily duties at work, just as Jeffrey´s does for him. After six months of use, Grace´s manager reports that she works independently and ably.
Gentry said that a wide range of variables in personal characteristics, work settings, and duties make it difficult to make any generalizations from the cases involved. He did note, however, that they do demonstrate the versatility of PDAs as workplace supports for people with ASD.
“This is an exciting time for anyone in the fields of education, physical rehabilitation, and vocational support, where we are seeing a long-awaited merging of consumer products and assistive technologies for all,” he added. “Field-based research in real world environments is essential to help us determine how best to use these tools to help our clients live more rewarding lives.”