Why Special Education Technology Needs to Go Beyond The Screen

In today's society, one of the most common misconceptions about children with developmental disorders is that they are mentally deficient.

This could not be farther from the truth.

Children with developmental disorders may have more difficulty demonstrating their intellectual abilities, but with the introduction of technology into education, children with special needs are beginning to have an outlet through which to demonstrate their full potential.

There's no more recent, obvious example of this than the iPad. The iPad has become a key tool in classrooms across the U.S., and with its Special Education App Collection, the iPad is able to help with the development of general learning, literacy and communication. To measure the impact of the iPad in the classroom, Apple conducted extensive research proving that the iPad has done everything from raise test scores to increased student learning. In fact, using iPads in the classroom improved kindergarteners reading proficiency by 40 percent in Auburn, ME.

While iPads have brought exciting new technology into special education, technology that relies on simply interacting with a screen limits the possibilities and potential for education and independence. There is a point when man-machine interaction such as the use of iPads bring becomes static and instead, we need to pioneer alternative methods that both support and supplement the use of screens in the classroom. In order to creatively engage people with developmental disorders beyond the screen, and help them become more independent, we must approach the future by introducing technology grounded in movement, real world applications and interaction.

4 Ways Interactive Technology Can Enhance Special Education

Children with special needs, particularly autism, have difficulty relating to people, and instead relate more easily to non-human objects. While an iPad can serve as a welcome alternative to peer-to-peer interaction, robots toys are actually making huge strides in interactive, rather than just intellectual, play. A robotic toy can be particularly relatable because they are predictable in their actions, giving children a sense of safety, while also stimulating their senses. Let's explore how robot toys can solve some of the challenges educators may find with static toys like the iPad here below.

Motor Skills and Movement

While there are many basic toys to help children with developmental disorders develop motor skills, there is a discrepancy in interactive technology for children meant for the same purposes. Most iPad users are in a fixed position, playing a game that solely on their screen rather than with the wider general environment. This is a major gap robotic toys can help fill for children with developmental disorders. There are toys in development, including Leka, that are working toward integrating movement-focused games and applications into their technology. For example, a teacher may control the robot so that a child must chase after it, moving from one area of a room to another in order to gain positive feedback from the robot - and thus improving gross motor skills.

Social and Emotional Recognition

Children with certain developmental disorders, such as autism have trouble recognizing social cues and emotions, and robotic toys can assist in the development of these skills. For example, NAO, a multifunctional human-like robot, is programmed with voice and facial recognition. Researchers believe that the robot can help autistic children because it allows them to focus on one aspect of communication at a time, and react accordingly without getting overwhelmed by multiple forms of communication at once. This social and emotional learning is essential to include in interactive technology, as improving in these areas is a crucial step for the child to become independent.


Interactive toys can be personalized to the degree that they become almost humanoid. For example, Bluebee Pals, an interactive toy, has helped autistic children follow directions, learn to take turns and increase communications by connecting the friendly plush animal to apps that personalize language tools, games and visual stories. The key here is that the robot can be programmed on the back-end, allowing for individualized yet measurable objectives that teachers and parents can use to help advance future development - all at the speed of a specific child.


While screen-based technology may rely on gamification, and is a helpful learning tool, robots can very much take this to the next level. On an iPad, children may get stars or coins to help them advance levels. With interactive and more realistic toys, children can gain more meaningful gamification reactions, such as emotions like happiness or sadness, which in turn help them to develop social skills with humans, rather than simply advancing a level or completing a game. In some cases, a toy can even reward a child with a high five, truly mimicking a human reaction.

Going Beyond Traditional Special Education Technology

The integration of technology into special education is well underway, but progress is being made in steps, not leaps, and there is still much advancement to be made. Technology in special education can help students build confidence and find success academically, but for students with special needs, it is critical to bring social and emotional learning function into the mix. For example, when using a robotic toy or technological learning device connected to an app and controlled by a teacher, the teacher is more easily able to customize a learning plan that includes intellectual, social and emotional learning. For example, a child may have trouble completing daily tasks on their own, but with an interactive toy, the child could receive positive responses when completing the task, leading them to eventually complete tasks (like writing one's name) independently. A static iPad simply can't have the same impact.

Is the iPad enough for classrooms, when it comes to children with special needs? Simply put, no. It is a wonderful support tool, but using technology that is truly interactive, rather than just responding to words or pictures on a screen, can help students better develop their social, emotional and motor intelligences. With robotic toys, children will increase their abilities to become interactive learners and active participants in their own education - rather than just passive ones.