Autism is a complex group of disorders that effect brain development. Such disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as repetitive behaviours (Autism Speaks, 2016). It is estimated that 1 in every 68 children currently live with autism (Favaro, 2014). This number has risen from 1 in every 88 children diagnosed in earlier studies (Favaro, 2014). Although there is no concrete answer as to why the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to increase, as well as no known cure for this disorder; developers have increased the prevalence and creation of assistive technologies aimed to benefiting the development of children with autism.
When I think of the term “assistive technology” I immediately imagine high-tech devices that are expensive and not readily available for everyday use. However, did you know that assistive technology can be low tech? Thats right! Assistive technology is a wide range of low and high tech materials. Historically, many educators and therapists have used a plethora of non-technology materials in order to help children with autism. For example, many educators and therapists use choice boards. The purpose of this aid is for children who are non-verbal to select the activities that they want to complete. Or, children can use this board to point out needs; such as using the washroom. Although I believe that low-tech assistive technology should not become extinct in educational settings, I do believe that new advances can also be beneficial for children.
Although there are a variety of apps and technology that assists the development of children with autism, I will be focusing on assistive technology that helps children communicate.
In an article published by the Dailymail, researchers have found that carefully constructed apps are enabling children to feel safe and communicate more readily because the software is more predictable and ordered compared to human interaction (Woollaston, 2014). Children with autism tend to react negatively to unpredicted situations, however the real world is often unpredictable. Nonetheless, when using technology, when we press a button, we know the anticipated response. This is why children with autism gravitate to technology because they find comfort in the predictability! (Woollaston, 2014).
Researchers have also uncovered that technology can help children with autism develop new skills in order to promote further development (Woollaston, 2014). Many children with autism are non-verbal. They may feel isolated from their environment as they are not able to communicate their needs and ideas like their peers. From experience, while working in a special needs summer camp; one of our campers had autism and was non-verbal. Because he was not able to vocalize his needs he often began physically violent to himself or other staff as he often felt frustrated because it sometimes took the camp leaders time to uncover what was wrong. He was not provided with assistive technology at camp to help him communicate, so as staff, we would assess the environment to uncover the problem.
However, many developers have created apps that help non-verbal children verbalize their feelings. Check out this article which examines seven assistive communication apps designed for children who are non-verbal. However, I wanted to highlight Proloquo2Go which is the most well known assistive communications app available for the iPad. This app is successful with professionals and parents as it is easy to set up, provides natural sounding text-to-speak voices, high resolution up-to-date symbols, powerful automatic conjugations, as well as a default vocabulary of over 7,000 items. This app is also easy to navigate as it has an exceptional graphic display. I have seen children use this app in educational settings, and I am amazed to see the profound impact it has on their social development. Children with autism as more open to approaching their peers as they are provided a medium to express their feelings. I would defiantly suggest this app to parents of non-verbal children!
A recent Ontario study also confirms the positive effect of communication apps with children who have autism and are non-verbal. This study followed twelve children over a six month period. Each child was provided an iPad with communication apps. Researchers found that nine of the students showed an improvement ranging from mild to significant with regards to their communication skills (Woollaston, 2014). The study also found that 75% of the children studied experienced higher levels of motivation which increased their attention span as well as their ability to interact socially in the classroom (Woollaston, 2014).
All in all, we all have the right to communicate. By providing assistive technology that helps children who are non-verbal communicate in the classroom other children will learn that we all can communicate … but some may just do it differently and thats okay! Although apps such as Proloquo2Go are used by many children, not ALL children are provided with such service. As professionals, we are working towards more inclusive practices. I believe that having these devices readily available for children in all educational settings we are one step closer to a fully inclusive community.