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By Lois Brady



Identifying the hidden abilities in nonspeaking children allows them to interact with others more effectively. Today's technological advancements are creating better tools to assist children with communication challenges, providing significant support.


 "What we’re finding is that a lot of these [nonspeaking] people have a good brain hidden inside, and technology allows them to express themselves, and I think that’s wonderful."     Dr. Temple Grandin


Among 1 in 36 children with autism (approx. 2.3 million) in the United States, there is a wide variance in communication abilities. Although many individuals have no difficulty with speech or language, many struggle to some degree with communication. About 40% of children with autism spectrum disorder do not talk at all. 1 Others might speak but have limited language and communication skills, echolalia (repeating words spoken by others), or challenges with rate and voice.


Although everyone with autism is different, there are common characteristics and challenges that may make technology especially useful.


The iPad, for example, can engage users by offering auditory, visual, and tactile feedback to enhance focus on specific tasks. For example, a child working on reading could see a visual picture, the written word, and/or a short video representation of an action or concept while simultaneously hearing the word/phrase spoken. There are even subtle haptic vibrations that can be detected with the audio output that may draw attention to the instructional content.


Additionally, individuals with autism often struggle with social interaction, reading facial expressions, and understanding others' perspectives (theory of mind). Technology offers accessible methods to practice and improve these essential skills. For example, speaking with Siri or Alexa can provide practice with social interaction in a low stakes’ context. Simple video modeling using a smartphone camera can also provide valuable feedback for appropriate social interaction. Technology fosters communicative, social, and academic development.


Technology Can Uncover Unseen Potential

Using technology nonspeaking individuals are able to communicating with friends and family, getting educational degrees, writing blogs and even books! Students who struggle to use a pencil have begun tracing letters on apps and can write entire phrases and sentences. Others are developing speech, becoming literate, acquiring social skills, and becoming excited to learn.


Temple Grandin, amongst many others, has chimed in about some reasons for this connection to mobile technology. "There is no flicker or high-pitched noise," explains Grandin, "Some kids are sensitive to the flicker of traditional screens and do much better with laptops and tablets, because the flat panel displays don’t flicker." 

Whatever the reasons for this synergy, one thing is for certain: it has been an exciting few years. 

 

One young nine-year old boy, Diego Pena, has written a short book describing how he feels not to being able to communicate and have limited control over his motor system.


"Trust me, I want to talk to you. My inability to speak is confused for my intelligence. I do have a voice, I speak with a Talker (my iPad), and I get to share my ability as a thinker like everyone else." Diego Pena: Anatomy of Autism


Although technology cannot, on its own, solve all of the challenges that autistic people face, it can be a powerful tool that should not be ignored.


 Why Mobile Technology


 The past several decades have shown a paradigm-shifting development in the world of AAC. In just a few short years, mobile technology has established itself as a highly effective tool for individuals with limited verbal capacity. For some, technology is even their "voice": using text-to-speech software in lieu of human speech.



Mobile technology has many fantastic features and capabilities within its operating system that can be utilized to create a more engaging experience. One example is using guided access, which can "lock" the user into a particular app in order to prevent digital eloping. "Eloping" is an often-used term for leaving or escaping something during instruction -- such as walking away from an activity or pushing away a worksheet. "Digital eloping" often involves swiping away non-preferred content or changing apps repeatedly.


Moving forward, it is clear that new technology is providing tools that will improve communication, socialization, and learning skills for people who have difficulty speaking for themselves


Examples of Apps that Rock --


In my book, Apps for Autism (Future Horizons), I reviewed over 200 apps and discussed how anyone could use this seemingly magical technology. Whether it be for communication, academics, or social functioning, mobile technology can channel education into a fun and creative learning experience. 

For those who are new to modern technology, worry not. The following is a list of some of the best, tried-and-true apps that not only provide a means of communication, but, build literacy, fine motor and social skills.


ShapeBuilder


ShapeBuilder will capture their attention, educate, and entertain with easy-to-move shapes that snap into place on top of silhouette puzzles. ShapeBuilder is the first app I introduce to all my students, and it has never failed to capture attention and serve as a building block.


InnerVoice: AI

Azure-supported advanced artificial intelligence technology is a feature of InnerVoice, which aims to improve the communication skills of students with autism.

InnerVoice can work like a typical communication device: letting your thoughts and feelings be heard and understood by others by simply touching a picture or word. Unlike traditional speech-generating apps, though, InnerVoice combines artificial intelligence technology with facial expressions, emotions, tone-of-voice, written words, and videos -- providing a complete multi-sensory learning experience. InnerVoice will astonish and amaze while teaching communication skills. 

 

First Words (FW) Professional


Believe it or not, everyone loves this app! First Words is easy-to-use and customized to fit individual needs. The clean, user-friendly format and visual/sound effects will "hook" you while boosting literacy skills. I have had many students gain valuable literacy skills using First Words (FW). Luckily, there are free trial versions to make sure your family member or client absolutely loves this app before purchasing.


Touch and write.


Even those who hate learning to write will reconsider when they can use shaving cream, paint, and jello! Touch and Write has been an essential part of my toolbox, as it not only teaches how to trace letters and improve fine motor skills, Touch and Write also teaches spelling, reading, and communication skills at the same time. As a mom once told me, "Who wouldn’t want to write their name in chocolate pudding?"


Book Creator for iPad


Book Creator gives you a way to make and share beautiful visual creations with the entire family. These "books" that you create can be visual/video modeling routines, social narratives, memories, directions, reports, or, simply, a story. Print, share, email, and/or save to iBooks.


These invaluable group apps were inspired by working and playing with children on the autism spectrum. They represent only a small sample of the many effective, brilliant apps that are available for use today. We’ve had significant success helping children meet their communication, academic, and social goals, and it is our sincerest hope that you will too.  


Autism has no cure, but significant efforts have been made to find the right types of supports, such as those addressing the core challenges of this population. Although modern technology is undeniably opening doors for all students, it holds special promise for supporting autistic children. Of course, technology comes with its fair share of downsides and warnings. Excessive screen time, for example, is linked to difficulties with attention and lower brain development.2 It is important for parents and educators to carefully monitor and regulate the amount of screen time and crucial to prioritize interactive and educational technology that can help improve social skills and communication.


Careful monitoring and mindfulness by the caregiver, such as using guided-access, can help mitigate potential negative effects associated with technology use. Modern technology has helped lift the curtain of nonverbal autism to cultivate the potential that this population possesses.


  1. Prevalence and Characteristics of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a Large Integrated Health Care System" by Christine L. Fountain, Lisa A. Croen, Cathleen Yoshida, and Judy Van de Water.Remington, A., and Fairnie, J. "A Sound Advantage: Increased Auditory Capacity in Autism." Cognition, vol. 166, 2017, pp. 459–465, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/aur.2142

 

  1. LaMotte, S. "MRIs Show Screen Time Linked to Lower Brain Development in Preschoolers." CNN, 4 Nov. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/04/health/screen-time-lower-brain-development-preschoolers-wellness/index.html.

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