Asperger students appreciate safety and support. Sal McKeown finds an edtech solution
Michael has Asperger's Syndrome and like many children he was picked on and bullied, so his parents transferred him to a large comprehensive with a good reputation for student support. One support the school put in place was an assistive technology system called Brain in Hand to help Michael work on the things that he found difficult and discover his own solutions.
Using a smartphone app and secure website, Brain in Hand offers useful tools like timetabling and a diary function, but the main strength is that users work with a special-needs coordinator (Senco), a teaching assistant or a support worker to identify stress points and work out possible solutions.
This means that vulnerable young people like Michael have strategies in their pocket and are less likely to panic. "I set it up myself," said Michael. "I like to try out technology rather than read about it. There is not a lot to the app side of it. It is very straightforward."
'Now I can relax' – Michael's mum
His mother Ann believes that the system has been a very successful safety blanket. "I used to worry about what state he would be in when he came home," she said. "It was a very stressful period. With Brain in Hand he can press the red button on his app if he is very anxious and someone in school will receive an alert and respond to help him. That, for me, is the biggest benefit. Now I can relax."
Initially Michael used it to deal with day-to-day problems such as 'What if I miss my bus and I'm late for school?" "What if someone is picking on me?" What if I forget my books?" He worked on these with his teaching assistant and came up with different scenarios and possible strategies for dealing with them.
He also used the 'traffic lights' system (see photo) which has different colours linked to levels of anxiety. Sometimes he needed to press the amber button a couple of times per lesson (this indicates rising anxiety). But he found that as time went on he could be independent and find solutions to his problems.
"For example, I was in an engineering lesson, and realised that I was falling behind what the teacher was saying," he explained. "Looking at my solutions reminded me that it was okay to ask for help. And if I press two ambers in class, I know that my Senco will see that and know that I am going to need a bit more help that day."
Brain in Hand has worked well for him. He got nine GCSEs and he is now studying for A-levels in law, photography and geography. These days he is much more confident and so doesn't need to use as many of the functions. He finds it useful for keeping tabs on his homework as he has a lot more now that he is in the sixth form.
Michael also finds it also helps with his social life and he has timetables for public transport and notes of how long journeys will take: "It's convenient having an app with everything I need. It's good knowing what I am doing next and having the timeline to look back at. I really like it because it is a discreet solution and so I don't feel singled out."
Brain in Hand describes itself on its website as "a revolutionary approach to help individuals with conditions such as autism, anxiety, mild or moderate mental illness, or recovering from brain injury. It helps them to live independently at home and be more effective in education or the workplace".
Sal McKeown, a recent runner-up in the “Best Author” category of Teach Secondary’s Technology and Innovation Awards, is a freelance journalist covering special needs. She recently published two packs of conversation cards about dyslexia aimed at Pupil Premium spending – Dealing with Dyslexia at Home and Dealing with Dyslexia at School. The cards cost £14.99 per pack and can be ordered online at www.finkcards.myshopify.com/.