In 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in every 68 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Consequently, there is a lot of discussion regarding potential causes of autism. However, for this post, I wanted to move away from this more commonly discussed topic and focus instead on how assistive technology (specifically iPads) are being used to help those with ASD.
What sparked my interest in this topic was an article in Wired magazine titled The Beautiful Diversity of Autism. While the article primarily discusses how the diagnosis of those with autism has progressively changed over the years, it also briefly touched on how iPads are being used as a communication device for those with ASD. To gain some additional insight regarding how iPads are used to enhance communication for those with autism, I interviewed speech language pathologist Lauren Ross. Mrs. Ross works as a speech therapist at several elementary schools in the Virginia public school system. The student population she works with consists solely of children diagnosed with autism, many of whom frequently rely on iPads both as a teaching tool and an assistive technology for communication. My questions to Mrs. Ross are in bold font and her responses are summarized.
Can you describe the typical student population you work with?
Mrs. Ross is an autism focused speech therapist, and said that her student population consists of children who have been diagnosed autism. The severity of her students’ diagnosis can range anywhere on the spectrum from fairly high functioning to completely non-verbal.
How do your students typically use their iPads?
“This definitely varies.” Since Mrs. Ross sees such a wide range of children on the autism spectrum, each child may use the iPad differently based on their individual abilities. For those who are non-verbal, the child may use the iPad to assist in identifying their wants and needs (such as being thirsty, hungry, or needing to use the restroom). The goal of utilizing the iPad is to help the child experience less frustration and more communication. However, while the iPad is a helpful, it’s not the only communication tool Mrs. Ross has at her disposal.
She described that to effectively communicate with her students she uses a “total communication mindset.” This includes offering students the opportunity to communicate through PECS (Picture Exchange System), oral language, and/or augmentative communication (iPad). For example, there are some children who might only use the iPad to communicate but others communicate most effectively using all three methods at once.
Mrs. Ross further elaborated on the variety of features iPads offer her students. She stated that the iPad not only serves as a communication device, but can also be used to strengthen social abilities and overall communication skills (such as working on eye contact, practicing emotions, or building complete conversational sentences).
Overall, do your students find the iPad’s capabilities helpful?
The majority of students are accepting of the iPad. Mrs. Ross stated that a number of her students are already allowed to use an iPad at home as a reward for good behavior. Consequently, on top of being drawn to something technological, the students already have a positive association with the device.
A specific capability of the iPad that students find helpful is word prediction. Students who are unable to come up with a word on their own can pick from a small list of choices offered by the iPad. This capability allows the student to avoid the stress and frustration of needing to communicate but being unable to come up with the necessary language. Word prediction also allows students who are non-verbal to easily type out their sentences by selecting the desired word as opposed to typing out the entire word/sentence or speaking.
Have any of your students resisted or refused to use an iPad as a communication device?
Yes, the downside to students being rewarded with an iPad at home is they may only associate the device with playing games or watching movies. Consequently, when you ask a student to complete an educational task on a device they’ve only ever used for enjoyment you run the risk of resistance. This is why it’s important to differentiate between a home iPad and a school iPad. Once the student understands the home iPad is for playtime and the school iPad is for work, they tend to become a lot more accepting.
Are their specific apps on the iPad that your students frequently use?
Since there are a variety of mobile apps Mrs. Ross uses for her students, she named several and broke them up into the following categories (some apps are associated with a cost, but all are available for download either on the iTunes store or through the app’s specific website):
Apps that allow the iPad to be used as a communication device:
Apps that encourage the student to develop expressive language:
Apps that encourage the student to develop receptive language:
Apps that help the students comprehend and express emotion:
Do your students primarily use the iPad for communication at school or is this technique also frequently practiced at home?
Mrs. Ross stated the iPads she uses in her classroom stay at the school and do not go home with the children. If the students have an iPad at home they can continue to use it as a communication device but it isn’t required and not all students have access to an iPad at home. The hope is that the students’ use of the iPad at school will teach them skills they can retain and carry over into the home environment.
What are some burdens or barriers you’ve noticed that may hinder the adoption of iPads for those diagnosed with ASD in school environments?
Funding and start-up are the two main barriers. Unfortunately, buying iPads for large groups of students can be quite costly and then allowing employees to spend time setting up each device for student usage can also prove very burdensome. Mrs. Ross said that her school system purchased 32 devices and figuring out how to best set up each device was incredibly time consuming.
To address potential resistance among teachers within the school system, Mrs. Ross held several teacher-focused programming seminars. With the demands on teachers already being quite high, she wanted to ensure that the students’ iPad usage in the classroom did not place a large burden on their teachers.
To conclude the interview, do you have any final thoughts you would like to share about how iPads are used with your students?
Mrs. Ross loves how much the technology has developed. The capabilities of iPads now provide an alternate form of communication and are a new type of teaching tool for those diagnosed with autism. In the future, Mrs. Ross looks forward to seeing how iPads and their associated apps evolve to become more user friendly, not only for students, but for their parents and teachers as well.
The author of this post would like to thank Lauren Ross for taking the time to participate in the interview process.