Devices Help Autistic Kids Communicate
> 4/28/2009 8:36:06 PM

Nearly every young autistic child experiences trouble communicating his or her most basic desires at a time when the ability to tell one’s caregivers about pains, irritations and physical needs is most important. The frustration that grows from this inability to express oneself may lead autistic children to withdraw even further from social interactions.

Autistic kids will always have problems putting their complex thoughts into words. But technology seems to be the most practical solution to the problem. The designers of a series of “augmentative” devices, ranging in size from that of a small card deck to a larger laptop, now seek to close the communication gap between autistic kids and their providers. These gadgets also vary in complexity. The simplest present the most basic desires as a series of pictures that children choose in order to convey their needs: an image of food signifying hunger, a toy for play, etc. The pictures are interchangeable and kids can press one of a series of buttons to make the machine in question utter an electronically generated phrase or sentence.

More advanced models, designed for older kids and those who’ve mastered using the simplest forms of augmentative communication, involve more complicated actions performed on a computer-screen interface. Kids choose from a larger pool of data to better tailor the messages they send to their parents/caregivers.

Some parents voice concern that, because these machines allow their children to avoid the difficulties of direct communication, their social development will be further impeded.  This may happen in some cases. But drawing a connection between the formation of these sentences and their logical meaning may actually speed the maturation process for some kids, who learn to imitate and improve on the gadgets. The technology is still in its early phases, and most of these devices are not yet available on the mass market. But assisted communication is a potential godsend for parents whose young autistic children simply cannot convey the fact that they like ice cream or that they need affection. We hope that certain models prove effective enough to become industry standards and that therapists can learn to work with them as well.

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