Uncovering What a Child Needs

Content Provided By: Penny Reed, Ph.D., Director of the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative

Learning about assistive technology in general is one thing. Figuring out what might help your child with specific tasks is another. Most Birth-Three agencies make an effort to understand, acquire, and use assistive technology appropriately. If your child is in a Birth-three program, ask the case manager to help you. For older children, occupational and physical therapists and speech-language pathologists often are familiar with assistive technology as well. Those therapists who work in children’s hospitals, outpatient children’s clinics, and sometimes private practice may know about assistive technology. If not, they should know the professionals in your area who are experts in assistive technology. Many states have an assistive technology resource center. You can find these agencies in the My Child Without Limits Resource Locator. If your state has such an agency, it will be listed in the Resource section.

Your local school district may have staff who know about assistive technology. Meet with your child’s teacher to determine if s/he is familiar with assistive technology. When you do, ask how assistive technology is being used in the classroom and to see some examples. One of three things will happen:

  1. the teacher will show you several things that are being used in the classroom,
  2. the teacher will refer you to the occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist who is taking the lead role in the provision of assistive technology, or
  3. the teacher will be at a loss as to what you are talking about.

If you get a response that resembles number 3, ask who in the agency is familiar with assistive technology. If the teacher does not know, then go to the principal or Special Education Director and ask the same question. If no one in the agency or school is well informed about assistive technology, they need to get started right away. The school system is required by law to provide any assistive technology device that they recommend.

Whether or not the teacher is knowledgeable about assistive technology, the next step is to request a formal assistive technology evaluation for your child. You have a right to that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and your school district or Birth-Three program must respond.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Assistive Technology

Perhaps the most important questions in both short and long term use of assistive technology are:

  • What is it we expect my child to be able to do now that he or she has this device?
  • How soon will s/he be able to do that?
  • Will it happen right away, or is there a need for training first?
  • How much time will training take?
  • After training, will my child be able to use the device effectively, or is our expected outcome something that my child is not developmentally ready to do?

These questions are critical for parents and service providers to discuss before investing a great deal of time, energy, and money. Different expectations can cause real problems. For example, if parents and service providers spend months determining a way for a child with severe motor limitations to access a computer, but there is not clear agreement on what that child will do on the computer, there is a huge potential for someone to be very unhappy.

Where to Look for Information

If the idea of assistive technology is new to you or the IEP team, there are a variety of resources available to begin learning what assistive technology is available. These are listed at the end of this article.


Remember the original question way back at the beginning of the process? It was, “what functional task do we want this child to be able to do that s/he is unable to do at a level that reflects his/her skills and abilities?” If the team keeps this as the central question, it allows them to:

  • focus on a clear outcome,
  • brainstorm about what devices might help achieve that outcome,
  • narrow down the list of possibilities until there is agreement two or more devices to try,
  • try those devices and determine which ones work, and
  • obtain funding to purchase that device.

And, by following these guidelines, no one ends up with a device in the closet.

Find Support

Connect with other parents about Assistive Technology

Visit the My Child Without Limits support community and talk to parents, caregivers, and professionals about their experiences.


Looking for more information on Assistive Technology and Individualized Service Plans?

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA)
(877) 687-2842 (877) 687-2842

Alliance for Technology Access
(707) 778-3011 (707) 778-3011

National Assistive Technology Technical Assistance Partnership (NATTAP)
(703) 524-6686 (703) 524-6686

DisabilityInfo.gov (AT resources)