Autism, technology and play: A practitioner-led study


There’s an ongoing debate on whether technology has changed the way that we interact with others. Arguably, technology provides many more opportunities for us to engage with other people, but at the same time there is a concern that technology decreases the quality of our interactions, especially for developing children. For children with autism, who already have difficulty in social skills, there is a concern that technology reduces the opportunity for learning social skills which are important later in life.

On the other hand, technology might have the opposite effect for autistic children. Technology might “take the edge off” face to face interactions, and reduce the social and sensory pressure of social environments.


Why did we do this study?

A handful of studies have shown that children with autism more readily converse and interact with others and engage in social play whilst using technology, compared to analogue counterparts. With this study we wanted to better understand the way digital technologies can influence how children with autism interact: we wanted to know what types of interactions were influenced by technology, and we wanted to compare how autistic children interact whilst playing digital and non-digital games and activities.


What did we do?

First we asked educators about the technology they used in their classrooms to support autistic children. Based on their answers, we selected different technology-based toys and games, and we brought them to a class in our partner school Prospect Bank School. There we observed autistic children (who also had learning disabilities) over multiple sessions playing with new technologies. The games included iPad with specifically-chosen apps, the game Osmo (a tangible system, meaning it is a blend of physical and digital), the Code-A-Pillar children’s robot toy, and the non-digital BRIO magnetic train.


What did we find?

We found that different technologies can support different types of interaction. For instance, children more readily engaged with adults when using new technologies, and more readily engaged with peers when using familiar technologies. We also found that the screen-based technologies actually promoted ‘the most’ social play and interaction, but only just (when considering that lots of social interaction also happened while using Osmo and Code-A-Pillar). Importantly, most of the children engaged in more social play and interaction when using digital compared to non-digital toys. Together our results mean that indeed technologies encourage autistic children to interact with others.



You can read more about the project on this page.

The findings have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and are available at:

The findings were also presented at several conferences, with the talk and posters listed below.


Who conducted and funded the project?

This study was conducted by Maggi Laurie for her PhD, with the help of her supervisors Sue Fletcher-Watson and Andrew Manches. The project was funded by the Chancellor’s Fellow Studentship of the University of Edinburgh Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences.