Monday, 24 October 2011

Ipads for Autism?

60 Minutes article on Apps for Autism
On Sunday, the US news programme ‘60 Minutes’ aired an article entitled ‘Apps for Autism’. As an assistive technology consultant it’s important for me to keep up-to-date with current practice in the use of technology to support people with disabilities. I watched it with interest.

The article opens showing an Autistic young man who has no speech using an ipad with Proloquo to communicate with the interviewer. The young man is able to navigate through a series of dynamic menu pages to find pictures and symbols which correspond to the words and phrases he wants to use. The ipad partnered with Proloquo provides an affordable dynamic communication system which rivals devices such as those from Dynovox et al and for the young man featured in the article and hundreds of other speech impaired people, it is truly changing their lives. So why was I annoyed when I was watching it?

It wasn’t that the article portrayed ipads as a panacea for Autistic students or that it furthered the popular portrayal of ipads as ‘Autism Therapy’ although it did both and both give me cause for concern. I was upset when I heard the young person’s parent say that this was the first intervention her son had received. Just think about that for a second…

The young man in question was 27 years old. Are we really to believe that this young man went through school without one teacher or therapist trying a PECS book or a communication aid with him? Really?

If what was broadcast was true then it’s a terrible indictment on the US education system. Are they asking us to believe that US teachers and therapists stood back and didn’t provide the technology and teaching strategies they know will help a child overcome at least some of their communication difficulties? I know better. US teachers and therapist are no different to their colleagues around the world who all work tirelessly to help their students make progress. They do whatever it takes, try whatever they can, and use whatever is available to them, often working many hours after school has finished to create the resources they need.

So why did 60 Minutes choose to portray it this way? The whole article served to further and reinforce the myth that ipads are THE tool for students with Autism. That using them provides something magical and that if we choose not to use ipads, we may be holding our students back. It’s sad really as ipads do have a place when it comes to meeting the communication, learning and leisure needs of people with disabilities and for some students they may be the tool of choice but they are just one of a multitude of tools in the teaching and therapy toolbox. Good teachers and therapists match the use of teaching strategies and technology to the needs of the student based on assessment and a sound knowledge of the student’s strengths and weaknesses, not on whim, fad or fashion.

60 Minutes could have shown me that student and the obvious joy he and his family were experiencing without wrapping it up in an advert for Apple products. Showing me a young man whose life has been enriched by the application of an appropriate technology would have been celebration enough.   


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Removed first post because I saw misspellings.

    Nice piece Ian. I said something similar on my Facebook page last night. After giving it some thought, I am going to give you the flip side. I agree that it is shocking that a 27 year old man wouldn’t have been exposed to technology for communication until you put things into perspective within a timeline of technology development.
    This individual is 27 years old. So that means his formal education either ended 6-9 years ago bringing us to 2002. The first Dynavox was released in 1991. The devices were big and clunky and marked for individuals with multiple disabilities as were PRC devices. They were heavy and most people wouldn’t or couldn’t carry it around.
    If we time travel back to the early 90’s the big push and still is in the education of individuals with autism the program of choice was PEC’s. It was the one and only method of communication and if the individual couldn’t achieve stage 1 they were considered not to have the prerequisite for a communication system. Can you imagine being told you don’t have the prerequisites skills for communication?
    The first device that I can remember being marketed for individuals with autism was Alphatalker with static custom overlays.
    So when you start putting it into a timeline it is feasible that this specific individual never was exposed to an AAC device, yes it is because when he was in school and depending on his educational program he might not have had a need because he had that extra special static spell board (sarcasm).
    This isn’t a failure of the educational system. It is a failure of the AAC developer marketing to a specific type of disability, it is the failure of the medical field for not understanding communication rights, it is a failure of the everyone that came in contact with the individual. Heck, since he was using a spell board, he could have used a computer with text to speech, a hand held Franklin speller with text to speech and external speakers, a LightWriter and so on.
    The question: If the consumer can type whole messages out, why would they use a system that requires symbol communication and categories? Is this the right APP for this individual? Or is it the tool of preference because no other were tried.

  3. Well said! I battle these myths in my practice as well. I fear that the wonderful techno,ogy that we have at our fingertips is beginning to shift focus from the reciprocation in our therapeutic interactions. I find that I spend much of my patent counseling time with some families emphasizing the "time and place" for this and other technologies-that this isn't the answer to all unanswered questions but rather a bridge to aid us in the path we have all taken the whole time! Thank you for this post, I thought I was the only one struggling with this love hate relationship of idevices!!

  4. i love your article..their are some students who needs some attention but they have a different attitudes and they have a great intelligence that others don't have. they have this attitude that is so hard to deal with it, you need to be more patient if you a son/daughter who have an autism