Assistive Technology: What It Is and How It Works

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Assistive technology (AT) can be an effective accommodation for children with learning and attention issues. Understanding what AT is and how it works is the first step toward finding the right tools for your child.

If your child has learning and attention issues, you’ll want to know about a variety of accommodations to boost his learning. Assistive technology (AT) can be an effective accommodation. Understanding what AT is and how it works is the first step toward finding the right tools for your child.

Assistive technology basics

In a broad sense, assistive technology (AT) is any device, piece of equipment or system that helps a person with a disability work around his challenges so he can learn, communicate or simply function better. How might it help your child?

There are many kinds of AT that help kids with learning and attention issues. These tools can help them work around their challenges while playing to their strengths. This helps them become more successful, productive students. At the same time, their confidence and independence can grow.

Assistive technology tools: from the simple to the sophisticated

There are AT tools to help students who struggle with listening, math, executive functioning, reading and writing. The variety of available AT tools has grown rapidly in recent years.

Despite the word “technology,” not all AT tools are high-tech. AT ranges from simple adaptive tools (like highlighters and organizers) to high-tech tools (like text-to-speech software).

Assistive technology and your child’s 504 Plan


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Kids learn in different ways and at different paces.

It’s important to teach to each student’s individual strengths, skills and needs. This is true for all kids — not just kids with learning and attention issues.

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If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires your child’s IEP team to determine whether AT is needed for your child to receive a “free and appropriate public education.”

IDEA also says the school district is responsible for choosing and purchasing the technology. The school must train its staff and your child to use it.

For a child with a 504 plan, the law is less clear about assistive technology. However, Section 504 encourages accommodations for students with disabilities, and AT falls into that category. The school isn’t responsible for recommending, purchasing or training your child to use AT. But they must be willing to consider it as an accommodation.

Because the number of AT tools has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, it’s hard for some schools to stay on top of what’s available. You may need to do some research on your own and be proactive with your child’s school.

Make sure any AT the school agrees to is listed clearly in your child’s IEP or 504 plan. Discuss the settings and situations where your child can (and cannot) use it. Those details should also be added to the IEP or 504 plan.

The assistive technology assessment process

The IEP team will request an AT assessment if it decides one is necessary. An AT assessment is done by a professional trained in the area in which your child needs support. For example, a speech therapist will likely do the assessment if your child needs a tool to help with communicating. The school will have a private consultant do the assessment if there’s no one on staff qualified to handle the task.

Currently, there are no standard policies or procedures in place for AT assessments. That means it’s a good idea to know the background of the person doing the assessment. You can ask about the evaluator’s experience, education and qualifications. Other questions you and the team might want to ask include:

  • Which tools do you think will be effective in addressing my child’s specific needs?
  • What strengths does my child have that can help him use this tool?
  • Do you see a need for tools to be used in different settings? (Home, school, social settings, etc.)
  • How easy is this tool to learn and to use?
  • How reliable is it?
  • What kind of technical support or replacement policy do you or the manufacturer provide?

What assistive technology cannot do

No matter what tool your child uses, it’s important to know AT doesn’t “cure” learning and attention issues. AT cannot:

  • Make up for ineffective teaching
  • Make learning and attention issues go away

What assistive technology can do

It’s important to keep in mind that AT’s role is to assist your child’s learning. It doesn’t replace good teaching, but it can be used in addition to well-designed instruction. It can help your child be more self-confident and work more independently. It also can help your child:

  • Work more quickly and more accurately
  • Navigate classroom routines
  • Set and meet high goals

The right AT tools let kids use their abilities to work on areas of weakness. For example, if your child has reading issues but has good listening skills, audiobooks might be useful.

Key takeaways

  • If a child with an IEP needs assistive technology, the school district must do an assessment and provide the tools.
  • Ideally, your child will use tools that work around his challenges while playing to his strengths.
  • Choosing the right tools can help your child become a more confident and independent student.

This article originally appeared on Understood.org, a free online resource for parents of children with learning and attention issues. Reprinted courtesy of Understood.org © 2018 Understood, LLC. All rights reserved.

Understood (2018)

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