How can we best develop technology to support the autistic community?

For me, it’s personal. As a parent of a severely dyslexic son, time and again I have experienced services, notably in education, that were actively resistant to the potential of technology. To give a very small example as an illustration, my son’s school wouldn’t let him use his mobile phone in the classroom. Instead of allowing him to photograph the white board, say, to capture the homework task, they opted to pay for a teaching assistant to be in class to take notes for dyslexic learners. Technology could have empowered learners and nurtured skills for independence. Instead, it was resisted, and students’ needs were stigmatised.

Now, technology is far more embedded in teaching and supporting students. But this is an example of an attitude we see across the landscape of support: in local authorities and in healthcare providers. Technology is seen as a bonus instead of the way forward. But as the public sector battles tight budgets and record numbers of staff vacancies, the current system needs to be remodelled – and technology is central to this.

To take one considerably disadvantaged population as an example, it's estimated that about a third of autistic people in England are undiagnosed. As such, hundreds of thousands of autistic people are getting no support, which is contributing to truly shocking health outcomes and the fact that only one in five autistic people is in employment. This is a terrible loss of potential. The reality is that many more people could have a better quality of life if they had the right support and tools.

What should this support look like? Human or digital? I don’t think we need to make a choice between the two; instead, we should focus on discovering how they can best be combined. For example, Brain in Hand provides people with simple digital tools to help manage overwhelm, anxiety, and motivation; it gives easy access to tailored resources, and access to a coach to help create personalised content. 24/7 on-demand human support is available at the tap of a button, whenever it is needed.

The technology and concepts are there, but how can we best develop them?


Often, technology falls short of its objectives because the people using the product have had no say in the making of it. This is why I champion co-production. If you’re designing a product, the end user should always have some input. This goes for any industry, not just support services.

Co-production for me and my team, as we work to build something that brings real value to autistic people, means the autistic voice is represented in all elements of the design process, from initial idea through to prototyping and testing. We ask: what features should we be adding into our product? Does this prototype do what we expect? Is this final version bug-free?

If we can design a product well for autistic people, we will also have something that works brilliantly for people who are not autistic – but it doesn't generally work the other way around. If you design for people who are neurotypical, this doesn’t necessarily create a great product for people who are autistic. This is why co-production leads to wider benefits for everyone.


We must consider accessibility with any support tool, and technology presents a range of potential issues on this front. For a lot of young people who have a limited data allowance, for example, data-hungry apps can be a problem, either costing them (or Mum and Dad) money or simply not working once they’ve chewed through their allowance.

What if you don't have the latest iPhone? Will the technology work on it? If you haven't got the latest software update, will it still work then? Is our content worded in a way that anyone can easily understand? Have we designed colours and fonts for all vision? Will it work for screen readers and people of all mobility levels? These are just some of the factors we consider. We want our product to work well for all people – which means we invest in accessibility as well as co-production.

Making the data work harder

Data from users’ everyday interactions with digital tools – collected compliantly and used responsibly – can really help us understand the obstacles that make life a bit more difficult. With this information, I would like to think in a year's time we will have an app that can pre-empt users' needs, offering suggestions and resources without them having to even look for them.

For example, say someone is going to the supermarket and finding it overwhelming. Learning from experience, Brain in Hand could help them remember to take their headphones, rather than them realising they’ve left them behind only when the situation is already distressing. It won’t be long until support tools can predict challenges like this and provide pre-emptive assistance, avoiding problems before they happen.

Future support and technology

This leads nicely onto exploring the future of support and technology. How do we continue to find the optimal mix between humans and technology? Where does technology work best?

There are some great examples of companies providing a human experience directly through technology – I think of this as human digital support. Starling Bank claims they deliver a completely human experience to banking. And, even though I have never talked to or even dealt with a representative of the bank, I couldn’t agree more. By considering users’ needs down to the finest detail, they’ve managed to design an experience delivered optimally by technology alone.

In the wider world of support, the growing use of wearables holds great potential. In June, Apple announced an upgrade that “allows users to log their momentary emotions and daily moods, see valuable insights, and easily access assessments and resources”. It seems like only a matter of time before these wearables will be able to alert us when we might be starting to feel anxious. This will enable us to anticipate problems more effectively, the benefits of which I’ve already mentioned.

Attitudes to using technology for support services have been changing, but we need to continue to push for its increased implementation alongside human support. If we can co-produce products effectively, make them widely accessible, and then use the data collected to improve and even predict support needs, there is so much potential for service providers, for the autistic community, and for all who aren’t currently getting the right support for them. This is what fuels my desire to do what I do. Why not harness all of that potential in the tech we carry around with us each day? Let us embrace, not resist, this opportunity.

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe