Tablet devices help kids with autism speak up

Speech-generating iPads show promise in helping nonverbal children communicate

COMPUTER CHAT  When given speech-generating iPads as part of language and play sessions, kids with autism displayed encouraging conversational advances in a new study.

Marina Mladenovich

Withdrawn children with autism become surprisingly talkative after using chatty iPads as part of an experimental treatment program focused on play and language skills.

Tablet devices featuring icons that can be tapped to produce vocal comments and requests help bring largely silent kids with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, at least partly out of their shells, say education professor Connie Kasari of UCLA and her colleagues.

For six months, 5- to 8-year-olds with ASD used handheld, speech-generating tablet computers, including iPads adapted for that purpose. Up to three months after completing the treatment program, those children spoke to others more often than did kids given tablets halfway through the six months or not at all. The scientists report the findings in the June Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Most iPad participants had no access to speech-generating devices after completing the program. “We have kept in touch with these children and their families and know that they continue to progress,” Kasari says.

WORD PRESS By tapping labeled icons on an iPad, children with autism who were largely nonverbal could generate spoken phrases and comments while playing with others. Kids easily grasped how to use the devices, usually with no training. Marina Mladenovich
About 25 to 30 percent of children with ASD rarely or never talk, even if they undergo years of social training. These individuals are often unable to live independently as adults.

Most previous investigations of speech-generating devices for kids with ASD have reported increases in basic requests such as “I want a snack.” In the new study, tablet users communicated more often not just to respond or to express their needs but to initiate comments in social and play interactions, says psychologist Helen Tager-Flusberg of Boston University, in a commentary published with the study.

In the experiment, a range of social experiences, including iPad exchanges, appeared crucial in helping nonverbal kids with autism talk, remarks professor of communication disorders Rhea Paul of Sacred Heart University in Trumbull, Conn.

The researchers studied 61 children, all of whom had been diagnosed with autism except one child, who had a milder form of ASD. On average, participants began the study with spoken vocabularies of about 17 words, despite having participated in at least two years of a standard but less-intensive social program.

Twice-weekly hour-long sessions run by Kasari’s group encouraged kids to talk and play turn-taking games with therapists and parents. From the start of the study, 31 children used tablets during play sessions with word icons that could be tapped in sequence to make statements about activities — say, “We build rocket.” Of that group, 24 kids were tracked for three months following the program’s end. Of the 30 kids who did not receive iPads at the start, 22 completed three-month follow-ups. Six received iPads halfway through the six-month program.

During 20-minute play sessions in the program’s last week, tablet users initiated on average nearly 62 statements containing about 33 different words, most of them spoken and the rest generated with the iPad. Nonusers and those who received the iPads late averaged about 40 statements and 26 different words. The iPad group maintained its verbal advantage three months later.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated July 14, 2014, to make clear that comments by Helen Tager-Flusberg were paraphrased, not direct quotations.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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