At age 9, for the first time in his life, Matt Bergman finally has a voice, thanks to technology.
Now, instead of fetching his dad’s shoes and leading his parents to the door when he wants to go out for french fries, Matt, who is autistic, taps on his iPad touchscreen, and an app audibly voices his craving.
Studies indicate that about 30 percent of autistic people are unable to speak. Some, like Matt, have never spoken; others, such as 6-year-old twins Jordan and Jaydan Smiley of Augusta, were just starting to develop their language skills when, in a form of regressive autism, they lost their ability to communicate.
In the past three years, computer-tablet technology, and in particular the iPad, has come to their aid.
For Matt and the Smiley twins, apps — computer applications that can be downloaded — are opening up ways to talk to their parents, teachers and therapists, as well as to play with other children and learn social and other skills.
“The speed at which this has taken off and has become entwined in special education is something I’ve never seen before,” said Lindsay Dutton, director of school therapy and applied technology at Heartspring, a Wichita center with a national reputation for helping children with special needs. She’s worked in special education for 12 years.
“It’s been a full-time job to keep up with all the technology and apps that are becoming available,” Dutton said the day after the release of the iPad Mini.
At Heartspring, autistic children can undergo an extensive evaluation to see what kind of communication device and which apps or programs are best for them. Children are tested on six to eight different devices, Dutton said.
“There are a lot of communication apps, and they vary in quality, so we want to match students with the right application and the right tool,” she said.
For several children — including Matt, Jordan and Jaydan, who all underwent outpatient testing at Heartspring – the right tool has been an iPad. Recently the Smiley twins also started using iPods, which, being smaller, are much more portable and easier for the young boys to use.
During a recent 30-minute therapy session at the Evelyn H. Cassat Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Wichita State, Matt used his iPad along with an app that had just recently been customized for his needs, the Proloque2Go.
As he pointed to pictures, the tablet spoke, “I want purple,” telling his therapist, Stephanie Entz, which color of Play-Doh the boy wanted to use to create animal shapes. After seeing Entz use the back command button just twice, Matt caught on how to maneuver to the home screen.
Later, he used the iPad to tell Entz and another autistic child who’d joined him in conducting a science experiment, “It’s my time.”
His mother, Rachel, looked on, relieved, she said, that her son finally had a voice. She no longer has to play a sort of game of charades to figure out what hurts when he’s sick or have him point to which food option he wants for dinner, she said.
Tanya Smiley, too, is relieved that her sons have a much easier time communicating with tablet technology. The boys used to point at pictures in a rather large picture book that was cumbersome for the kindergartners to hold. Paraprofessionals at the boys’ elementary school — one of whom calls the iPod the boys’ “talker” — also like the iPod’s portability and ease of use, Smiley said.
Each of the boys’ iPads and iPods was customized with the TouchChat HD app. While “it took a whole lot of forever” to customize the app with pictures of their family, their cat Croakie, favorite restaurants and favorite foods, their mother said, it’s opened up the boys’ ability to communicate in a variety of situations.
The boys are less frustrated when they communicate now, and Smiley said she thinks the devices have helped accelerate their ability to use their natural voice and speech.
“It’s made a huge impact in our lives,” she said. “Looking back at the use of the picture book, it seems so primitive.”
A common device
The use of communication devices, called augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, has been around since the 1950s, said Terese Conrad, a clinical supervisor specializing in autism spectrum disorders at WSU’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic.
What’s new about the use of tablets among the autistic is that it’s taking what is a mainstream device and making it specialized, said Conrad and Dutton.
Some kids are already familiar with working the touchscreens of the tablets because they’ve seen parents use tablets or similar technology, such as a smartphone. Matt, for example, loved playing with his mother’s cellphone, manipulating the keypad and using it to play games.
Experts advise that iPads, iPods and similar tablet technology used by autistic children as communication devices not be used for the kind of fun and games that other children or adults may use them for.
Some charitable organizations, such as the Children’s Miracle Network in the Smileys’ case, help pay for the devices for those who have autism.