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AAC Apps and Autism

In the age of the iPad, tablet technology goes far beyond Facebook and Angry Birds. For many children with autism who struggle to communicate, it’s giving them a “voice” for the first time.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, apps give nonverbal students the ability to select symbols representing words to express themselves via text-to-speech, while giving others a way to communicate with the student in a manner they understand.

The ever-growing number of app options offer a simple-to-understand, portable and relatively inexpensive alternative to traditional low-tech systems, which were often the only option in classrooms even just a few years ago.

“The cheaper and more practical access to AAC systems for our nonverbal kids has been the biggest game changer,” says Darla Ashton, assistive technology coordinator for Carmel Clay Schools. “We have so many kids that are now ‘talking’ with their iPads who never were able to communicate with us before.”

Still, it’s been a leap of faith for the early adopters of AAC apps to switch from the tangible picture and binder systems to an iPad.

As for parents’ concerns that AAC systems could hinder a child’s ability to one day speak on their own, research shows just the opposite. Once a student understands how communication works, their verbal spoken output often increases.

Heather Nichols, a significant disabilities instructional coach with Carmel Clay Schools who’s worked in early childhood education for ten years, admits she was skeptical the first time she started a student with an app. “I thought it would be difficult to use, but it wasn’t long before I realized this was wonderful!” she recalls. “We really had no idea that these children had the ability, at the age of three, to work with such a dynamic device.”

For parents who are considering AAC apps or who are new to the technology, Nichols offers some key tips:

  • -Accept communication in all forms.  Some kids use multiple strategies to communicate — sign language, gestures, pictures and an iPad. Any communication is good communication. If you’re working with an iPad and they want to sign for a drink, accept that behavior because you don’t want to discourage any type of communication.
  • -Ask around.  Find out what technology your school offers. Consult your child’s speech therapist. Connect with other parents. Do your own research. It’s trial and error, so don’t be afraid to try something new. If it doesn’t click this time, try again later. Don’t give up.
  • -Respect the child’s voice.  If the iPad is going to be their voice, you have to treat it as such. You can’t take away a child’s voice, even if they’ve asked to go to the park a hundred times in the last hour!

As for parents’ concerns that AAC systems could hinder a child’s ability to one day speak on their own, research shows just the opposite. Once a student understands how communication works, their verbal spoken output often increases.

For Cindy Seiler, whose 5 year-old son, Denver, has autism and is nonverbal, the iPad has been transformational both in and out of Nichols’ classroom. “It’s been a godsend. He can ‘say’ things like, ‘Want cracker,’ or ‘Want milk,’ or tell me what’s hurting,” she says. “When there are those moments of frustration and he can’t communicate, the second he gets the iPad in his hands, he’ll stop crying, and he’ll tell me what he wants or what he needs.” Seiler also likes that Denver’s iPad doesn’t make him stand out at school, where tablet technology is now common in the classroom.

Experts suggest that parents of children who use AAC apps learn how to navigate the technology themselves so they can help troubleshoot any problems at home. Parents should contact their school district to inquire about training. Local organizations like Easter Seals Crossroads also offer opportunities for training, so look into the community support available to help your child take advantage of the innovative technology available right at his or her fingertips.

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