iPads help kids with autism learn to speak

"For some parents, it was the first time they’d been able to converse with their children," says Ann Kaiser. "With the onset of iPads, that kind of communication may become possible for greater numbers of children with autism and their families." (Credit: Devon Christopher Adams/Flickr)

Some children with autism don’t start speaking until they or 5 or 6 years old. Using iPads can help them learn new words and encourage them to talk more, research shows.

In a recent study, all of the children, who were between the ages of 5 and 8 years old, learned new spoken words and several learned to produce short sentences as they moved through the training.

“For some parents, it was the first time they’d been able to converse with their children,” says Ann Kaiser, professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University. “With the onset of iPads, that kind of communication may become possible for greater numbers of children with autism and their families.”

Augmentative and alternative communication devices—which employ symbols, gestures, pictures, and speech output—have been used for decades by people who have difficulty speaking.

Now, with the availability of apps that emulate those devices, the iPad offers a more accessible, less expensive, and more user-friendly way to help minimally verbal children with autism to communicate.

And, the iPad is far less stigmatizing for young people with autism who rely on them for communicating with fellow students, teachers, and friends.

iPad words sound the same

Researchers say the reason speech-generating devices like the iPad are effective in promoting language development is simple.

“When we say a word it sounds a little different every time, and words blend together and take on slightly different acoustic characteristics in different contexts,” Kaiser says.

“Every time the iPad says a word, it sounds exactly the same, which is important for children with autism, who generally need things to be as consistent as possible.”

As many as a third of children with autism have mastery of only a few words by the time they are school age. Previously, researchers thought that if children with autism had not begun to speak by age 5 or 6, they were unlikely to acquire spoken language. But the new study shows that theory may be changing.

Next steps

Building on findings from this research, Kaiser has begun a new five-year long study supported by the National Institutes of Health’s Autism Centers of Excellence with colleagues at UCLA, University of Rochester, and Cornell University Weill Medical School.

She and a team of researchers and therapists at the four sites are using iPads in two contrasting interventions (direct-teaching and naturalistic-teaching) to evaluate the effectiveness of the two communication interventions for children who have autism and use minimal spoken language.

In the direct-teaching approach, children are taught prerequisite skills for communication (such as matching objects, motor imitation and verbal imitation) and basic communication skills (such as requesting objects) in a massed trial format.

For example, an adult partner may present five to 10 consecutive opportunities for a child to use the iPad to request preferred objects. During these opportunities, the child is prompted to use the iPad to request and may receive physical assistance if he cannot use the iPad independently.

In the naturalistic-teaching approach, the adult models the use of the iPad during play and conversation. She also teaches turn-taking, use of gestures to communicate, play with objects and social attention to partners during the play. She provides a limited number of prompts to use the iPad to make choices, to comment or make new requests.

In both approaches, children touch the symbols on the screen, listen to the device, repeat the words, and sometimes say the words themselves. They are encouraged to use both words and the iPad to communicate, and the adult therapist uses both modes of communication throughout the instructional sessions.

Autism Speaks funded the study.

Source: Vanderbilt University