Finding a Voice – 2

Inexpensive mobile technology is helping students with autism spectrum disorder to communicate and learn.

Inexpensive mobile technology is helping students with autism spectrum disorder to communicate and learn.
by Shannon Stuart
Principal, March/April 2012
Schools have struggled for decades to provide expensive augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) resources for autistic students with communication challenges. Clunky voice output devices, often included in students’ individualized education plans, cost about $8,000, a difficult expense to cover in hard times. However, mobile technology is bringing AAC strategies in reach for many more students, allowing them to find a voice.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has become the fastest growing disability in the United States, with prevalence rates estimated at as many as 1 in 110 children. Students affected by ASD have difficulty with communication, learning, and social skills. Communication challenges that a student with ASD might face include:
  • No or limited purposeful verbal speech;
  • Difficulty expressing needs and wants;
  • Echolalia (repeating a word or phrase that has been previously heard);
  • Loss of words that the child was previously able to say;
  • Inability to identify objects (poor vocabulary development);
  • Difficulty answering questions;
  • Limited attention to people and objects in the environment; and
  • Poor response to verbal instructions.
Students with ASD often process language more slowly than typically developing students, which can cause confusion and anxiety. AAC strategies help by supporting students in expressing thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. Students with communication challenges can use AAC to supplement their existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. Examples of common AAC strategies include sign language, picture communication boards, and voice-output communication devices. Many AAC strategies use picture symbols, letters, words, and phrases to represent the messages needed to talk about objects, people, and places. Students with ASD tend to prefer interacting with inanimate, but engaging, objects such as mobile tablets, perhaps because what happens on a tablet’s screen is predictable. People, particularly those making cryptic sounds and faces, are not.
Many Options
The availability of inexpensive mobile technology has rapidly and considerably changed services for students with complex communication needs. From touch screen phones to tablet devices, mobile computing power and user-friendly interfaces are inexpensive and readily available. For example, in April 2010, Apple released the iPad, priced in the $500 range. People with disabilities, including students with ASD, are readily adopting mobile technologies.
Educators who serve students with ASD have many options to support increased communication. For example, students often use speech-generating devices for face-to-face interactions, to develop presentations, and to participate using mainstream software. Medical insurance companies fund bulky, expensive AAC devices under the direction of a licensed speech-language pathologist, and AAC devices are often listed as supplemental services in students’ individual education plans. Medicare and private insurance companies do not cover mobile devices yet.
Mobile touch screen devices such as iPads or tablets not only cost much less than these earlier AAC devices, but also provide a “cool factor” for students that clunky voice output devices never had. Not only have the mobile devices themselves become smaller and multi-functional, but also the number of communication applications and tablet platforms are increasing more rapidly than AAC hardware or software ever did. Students with ASD are using many popular communication applications for mobile devices.
Mobile devices are not a perfect fit for all students with ASD. While mobile devices allow students to have direct control over the interface, some students with ASD lack the manual dexterity needed to use a keyboard. As with any technologic device, inexplicable software glitches could crash a system, and the built-in batteries do not last forever. Most problematic, however, might be durability of a mobile device in the face of physical tantrums. Protection for the device is therefore very important. Several companies make protective carrying cases, skins, and foam frames to protect mobile devices. Insurance is also advised. For example, Worth Ave Group offers a policy that covers liquid damage, water submersion, theft, fire, breakage, and accidental damage, with a $50 deductible, for less than $40 a year.
Compelling Benefits
The benefits of using mobile devices to increase communication for students with ASD are compelling. The mobility and hipness of these devices appeal to students with ASD, their peers, and their teachers. Historically, many of the electronic options for communication and learning support for students with ASD cost thousands of dollars. Compared to that, a few hundred dollars for a mobile device may seem like an inexpensive option. In addition, the rapidly growing selection of applications that are available for mobile devices is tempting. Apps range from tools that support personal organization such as visual schedules and calendar options to those that teach specific academic skills, structure social stories, and create opportunities for entertainment. While some applications have a hefty price tag, others are free or very inexpensive. This creates a bit of a challenge because applications may be useful for one child but not another. However, it is easy to research particular applications before purchase. Parents and teachers are excited about the impact that mobile devices may have for students with ASD. It is important for parents, teachers, and principals to keep up with the most up-to-date AAC research and features in order to match them with students’ individual needs.
Being unable to communicate thoughts and needs would be frustrating for anyone. Mobile technology devices are not cures for ASD, and there are students whose abilities simply will not allow them to use these devices. However, they are worth researching to determine if one is the appropriate choice for a particular student. For those students who are a match for mobile technology devices, their frustrations likely will ease as they find their voice.
Shannon Stuart is graduate coordinator and autism coordinator in the Department of Special Education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
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