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Autism and Nonverbal Communication: How Technology Can Help

Verbal communication is a major challenge for many children and adults with autism, ranging from mild to severe depending on the individual. According to the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, one third of people diagnosed with autism are nonverbal. Thankfully, technology offers an outlet for many nonverbal individuals with autism, especially children, to express their thoughts and feelings. These alternative communication methods, known as Alternative/Augmented Communication (AAC), can be utilized in a variety of ways, from speech generating devices to apps featuring pictures.

Tablets, smartphones, and PDAs are just a few of the devices that those with autism can utilize to communicate. These devices can be customized to support a multitude of features, including task-sequencing, activity-cueing, and communication assistance. There are also numerous apps supported by mobile devices, such as phones or tablets, which facilitate communication.

One example is the ReacTickles app, which uses touch, gesture, and audio input to help with interactive communication. iCommunicate, an app for the iPad, allows users to create pictures, storyboards, flashcards, routines, and visual schedules, along with the ability to record custom audio. Another app, Proloquo2go, provides natural-sounding text to speech voices, high resolution, up-to-date symbols, and a vocabulary of 7,000 items. These are only a few of the countless AAC apps available for individuals with autism.

Along with the above-mentioned resources, several organizations are involved in facilitating AAC. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, an organization funding programs for children with autism, has introduced the iPad for Kids Program, which has donated iPads to individuals and special education classrooms so that teachers and students can take advantage of apps enabling communication. The Center for AAC and Autism, an organization focused on improving the language and communication skills of children with autism, has introduced Language Acquisition Through Motor Planning, or LAMP. LAMP is a therapeutic approach which offers an outlet for expression to children with autism who are either nonverbal or have limited verbal abilities. The LAMP approach provides children with core words on a speech-generating device, “teaching those words in a sensory-rich environment.”

According to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, the best candidates for AAC are nonverbal children who have not started speaking even after learning to imitate body movements, and who “may have sight word vocabulary and other nonverbal cognitive skills.”

“These would be young children who cannot learn to imitate speech phonemes and have a true underlying speech dyspraxia,” the organization explains. “They desperately need AAC to develop symbolic communication. Some will develop verbal speech as they use signs, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), etc., or a combination of strategies.”

The Indiana Resource Center also recommends AAC for preschoolers “whose nonverbal performance skills are well below 12-month level. They will not have the necessary cognitive skills to support language development. This will be a small group of children. They will need to use gestural and simple, low tech AAC.”

Ultimately, the Indiana Resource Center concludes that teaching children with autism to use speech should be “a main priority of every early intervention program for children with an autism spectrum disorder.”

Shema Kolainu - Hear Our Voices

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