Influence of technology on social interaction and play in autistic children
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date27/06/2021
Laurie, Margaret Holmes
The social and communication differences associated with autism can make engaging in social play difficult for autistic children. However, it has been suggested that digital technologies could motivate or inspire autistic children to communicate with other people and engage in collaborative play. This conflicts with the increasing concerns from parents and practitioners around the impact of technologies on social interaction in children and young people, which could be exacerbated in autistic children due to the aforementioned difficulties in social interaction. This thesis includes five studies which aim to explore whether and how technology can provide opportunities for autistic children to engage in social play with peers. Chapter 1 outlines the context and rationale for exploring the influence of technology on social play and interaction in autistic children. In neurotypical children, technology is likely to have small or negligible effects on social development. A number of studies have shown that features of technology, such as the interface and the software design, can encourage social interaction. Autism is associated with social differences and difficulties in social interaction, and a number of technologies have been designed to teach or mediate social interaction in autistic children, with relative success. A further number of studies have suggested that autistic children are more likely to engage in social play and interaction when using digital technologies. Chapter 2 provides a brief overview of key issues in autism research and justifies some of the research methodologies chosen in the remainder of the thesis. Chapter 3 explored how educational practitioners used technology in classrooms with autistic students. In an online survey, practitioners said that they more frequently used technology to teach social skills to autistic students, rather than to facilitate peer interactions. Respondents also said that technologies such as smart boards, tablets, and computers were used more widely than more recently developed technologies, such as tangibles and robotics. These results were followed up by focus groups, where practitioners highlighted that different features of interfaces made children more aware of social partners and could sometimes encourage or inhibit interactions depending on children’s social interaction style and technological preferences. According to practitioners, children who were interested in technology would be more likely to socially benefit from it, than others who were less interested in technology. Chapters 4 and 5 reported on a design-based research study, in collaboration with educational practitioners, to explore the influence of different technologies and classroom environments on children’s social interactions and play. The main finding was that children interacted differently both with technologies and with other people, and that different apps and technological interfaces produced unique patterns of social interactions. Children engaged in more social play with peers while using the iPad and Code-A-Pillar technologies, and more social play with adults while using Osmo. Novelty appeared to have the strongest environmental influence on social interactions in digital environments, even more than creating collaborative spaces and having practitioners directing children’s social play. Chapters 6 and 7 compared social play and joint engagement in pairs of children while they played with digital and non-digital toys and explored the effect of enforced collaboration. The results showed that children engaged in more social play and joint engagement when using digital toys. Enforcing collaboration led to more interactive play and joint engagement in both digital and non-digital conditions. This suggests that technology itself can strongly mediate social interaction in autistic children, perhaps more than the children’s own interests and social interaction styles. Together, the studies within this thesis highlight that there are many ways in which autistic children engage with other people while using digital technologies, and many opportunities to foster these interactions in classroom settings. In conclusion, as summarised in chapter 8, technologies do influence social interaction in autistic children, but so do children’s social interaction styles and preferences, the wider classroom environment including adult roles, and so do particular technological interfaces and software. In terms of how technology mediates interaction, it can provide a socially inclusive space where children can jointly engage with others on devices and activities which interest them, provide an engaging environment where others can scaffold interaction (i.e. practitioners), or the technology itself can mediate child-led interactions through children’s interests.