Using Tech to Break Down Barriers

Parents of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) know that their children have important things to say despite their difficulties with communication. Even nonverbal children with ASD can be effective communicators when they’re given the right tools. Fortunately, research into Autism and assistive technology for children with ASD shows that new high-tech tools can help kids to express themselves and better cope with the challenges of their daily lives.

Autism and Assistive Technology – Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Methods

For many children with ASD, the biggest hurdle in dealing with the disorder lies in the realm of communication. The challenge of communication comes at them from a variety of directions:

  • Children may not be able to express themselves verbally. Some kids with ASD are nonverbal, meaning that they don’t talk at all, and others may not be able to find the words to express themselves appropriately even when they can talk.
  • Children may not be able to understand others’ verbal and nonverbal communication. Words, body language, gestures, or tone of voice might not make sense to them, and they might have trouble getting meaning from what others say and do.
  • Children might have difficulty with the physical demands of speech. The motor skills required for speaking effectively may be beyond the abilities of some kids with ASD.

When children face these barriers, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), therapeutic approaches aim to give them ways to communicate that don’t require speaking. AAC approaches employ low-tech or high-tech tools, and research has shown that they effectively increase the communication and daily living skills of children with ASD.

Low-Tech AAC Solutions

Some AAC approaches use no external tools at all, relying instead on a system of signs or hand gestures for expression. These approaches can be difficult for some children with ASD to use effectively, however. A more common approach called a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses picture cards that children can use to express themselves in a nonverbal way.

Even when high-tech tools are the eventual goal, AAC approaches typically begin with a system like PECS because mastery of high-tech assistive systems is often easier when the groundwork is laid first with a low-tech system.

Speech Generating Devices

High-tech speech-generating devices (SGDs) use electronic systems to translate a child’s choice of images and symbols, representing words and ideas, into electronically spoken communication that others can easily understand. A typical SGD allows a child to select an image on a tablet or computer touch screen. Then the tablet or computer produces the corresponding spoken words via either recorded audio or synthetically generated speech.

SGDs have been shown to increase the communication abilities of even nonverbal children with ASD. The video below illustrates how the devices can make a significant difference in the lives of kids and their parents.

Non-verbal children living with autism learning to communicate via electronic devices – CityNews Toronto

How Kids Respond to SGDs

For many kids with ASD, using an SGD is fun and relatively easy. Parents sometimes worry that reliance on an electronic SGD will deter their children from developing verbal communication skills because using the electronic tool is easier than speaking. Research has shown, however, that that’s not the case. In fact, the use of an SGD often seems to encourage the development of verbal skills beyond the use of the device.

Although no one knows exactly why an SGD can improve verbal communication skills, several theories have been suggested:

  • Sometimes it might actually be easier for the child to use verbal communication than to use the device. The child then might learn to use spoken words to take advantage of the easier solution.
  • The SGD might make the child feel less pressure to learn how to communicate verbally. The lack of tension associated with communication might encourage the development of more verbal skills.
  • Using the SGD may also stimulate the development of language skills overall, which might translate to speech skills.

Other Types of Assistive Technology for ASD

Communication devices are not the only kinds of technology that can be used by children with ASD to improve their daily lives. Specifically designed tools and devices can assist with various goals, from improving cognitive skills to helping the child be more independent.

  • Learning Aids. Computer software, multimedia tools, and even high-tech tools such as robots can be used to help a child with ASD to learn problem-solving skills and reach other educational objectives.
  • Sensory Aids. Technology such as noise-canceling headphones can help to moderate the sensory environment for a child with ASD.
  • Functional Aids. Specialized functional tools can help a child overcome motor-skill barriers by assisting with daily tasks such as getting dressed and moving around.

Autism and Assistive Technology – “Communication Device” Real Look Autism Episode 8 – From Real Look Autism

Thanks to ongoing research into the potential of assistive technologies, more and more effective solutions are becoming available to children with ASD and their families all the time. With the direction of professionals who specialize in assistive technologies, parents now have more options than ever for helping their children get past the barriers put in their way by ASD.

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