At this year’s Autism Shows, I posed a question: Is the autistic community benefiting from the potential of technology? The answer, in short, is no – there is a long way still to go.

Wearables, AI, VR, and the ubiquity of smart phones offer unprecedented opportunities to empower and support the autistic community. As technology continues to prove its worth, particularly for the growing number of people awaiting autism assessments – a figure projected to surge from 140,000 to 190,000 by 2024 – it is evident that change is needed. 

Shifting perspectives

The journey to accessing support is often filled with hurdles. As the mother to a very dyslexic son, I have first-hand experience of the intransigence of a public body to adopt seemingly simple technologies. To give an example from many experiences, a simple request to allow my son to photograph the white board instead of copying it by hand was met with a ‘no phones in school’ response, and a decision to put a TA in the classroom to transcribe instead. An opportunity to empower my son with technology and give him skills that would work beyond the classroom was missed. The technology existed, but the school’s resistance to see its potential blocked Max from support.

This perspective is sadly often mirrored in the public sector, including local authorities and healthcare providers. Instead of treating technology as a must-have, it’s often thought of as secondary, a nice-to-have. In a time of record-high workforce shortages and budget constraints, we need to do things differently. Technology is going to be fundamental.

The autistic population

Estimates generally place the number of autistic people in England between 700,000 and one million, around 1% of the population. However, a recent study published in The Lancet suggests a figure closer to 1.5 million, a third of whom remain undiagnosed and thus unsupported. This matters, particularly given the higher prevalence of mental health struggles and even suicide within the autistic community.

Employment statistics are illustrative here: only one in five autistic individuals is in work. I consider this a tragic loss of human potential, and I believe that the right support, delivered with technology, could go a long way towards addressing this.

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Evidence-based digital support

A recent independent study showed that the Brain in Hand support system can help autistic people significantly improve their quality of life. Through a blend of technology and human support, Brain in Hand helps people manage anxiety, overwhelm, and motivation. It provides personalised coping strategies and resources that can be accessed on the user’s phone when they need them. Expert coaches assist users in identifying challenges and devising solutions, while immediate human support is available at the tap of a button.

As just one real-life example, Ian, an autistic senior civil servant struggling to manage anxiety, was able to stay in work thanks to Brain in Hand; technology allowed him to continue contributing his talents to an important role. His story is one of many that show how digital support, done right, has the capacity to help people overcome societal barriers to education, employment, and independent living.

Anticipating future innovations

The challenge for the future is striking the right combination of technology and human support. I think this is achievable by thinking about what each of those do best. Starling Bank, for example, offers a seamless and very human banking experience delivered entirely via technology. In contrast, I imagine most people still want a human serving them a drink when they go to the pub. 

Used carefully, AI tools like ChatGPT offer considerable potential to make a digital experience more human. It could, for example, help us offer intelligent live chat functionality where someone can talk to a person if they want, or find the answer quickly through carefully monitored AI-assisted responses. And I think wearables and the smart use of big data will enable us to evolve our system to help autistic people better recognise emotions and anticipate difficulties.

If harnessed thoughtfully, technology could offer autistic people – and others – a better quality of life. We’re not there yet, but I believe that the potential of everyday technology could unlock a better future.

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