Technology Helps Non-Verbal Autistic Kids Communicate

Teachers at Ontario's Beverly School were beginning to lose hope when six weeks after introducing Apple's popular iPad tablet to a classroom that serves kids with severe autism, they detected no change in how the children behaved. The key was patience — slowly but surely, those changes did come.

First it was it was only a slight lengthening of the time that kids paid attention to the tasks in front of them. Then they began to recognize words. And after a few days more, for the first time, students for whom making social contacts is a huge hurdle, began to interact with their peers.

Special education teacher Stacie Carroll called that "a huge deal," because the iPad gave these students a tool to use to communicate with each other and the world. She said that being able to let someone know how you feel, or what you'd prefer for lunch, or which things make you happy or sad, is akin to finding "a golden key" for a severely autistic child.

Now, as Ontario deals with a growing number of autism diagnoses, education officials hope that this "golden key" in the form of a popular digital gadget will unlock more than just the needs and wants of Beverly students. Figuring out how to connect with autistic students who are non-verbal is a huge challenge and many schools are now experimenting with technology to make that task easier.

Carroll, who with colleague Sabrina Tayebjee Morey recently won a Prime Minister's teaching award, was part of a three-year project that put an iPod touch or iPad tablet in the hands of students at the Toronto public school. The groundbreaking research at Beverley found autistic students were able to achieve things seasoned educators — even the children's parents — had no idea they were capable of, using no-cost to low-cost applications. Some students' attention spans exceeded five minutes by the end of their research.

Sarah Patterson, the mother of a 5-year-old, understood these kinds of challenges firsthand. Unable to make his needs known, Landon's only means of communication were crying fits and temper tantrums. Even expressing something as simple as "yes" or "no" was a struggle. But all that was made easier after a tablet was put into his hand. Although unable to speak, Landon was able to point to the words on the screen to make his needs and wants known.

Watching Landon work with the tablets, even teachers who were around him day in and day out were surprised. He had a wider vocabulary and deeper understanding of concepts like colors and numbers than they had ever suspected. On the social front, he was able to recognize his classmates based on their pictures.

The benefits of the technology, however, come with a warning: the devices can open up lines of communication but may further isolate autistic children, who already struggle to socialize. Bridget Taylor, a researcher who founded the Alpine Learning Group, a private school for autistic children in New Jersey, says autistic children can become too focused on the devices.

"Kids are drawn to technology and . . . there could potentially be a reliance on it that's not so beneficial in the long run," says Taylor, who has worked with autistic youth for 25 years and uses tablets with her students.

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