Apps and autism

 

Rory Cellan-Jones reports on the new app for children who cannot speak

New technology can be inspiring, exciting or sometimes infuriating - but I can't ever remember it being really moving. Until, that is, I met Ruby Dunn, whose life is being changed by a piece of software.

Ruby, who was born 14 weeks premature in 2006, has autism and has never spoken. She does, however, attend her local school - Sandford Primary in Somerset - and is well integrated into every aspect of school life. But it is an app which she uses on an iPod and an iPad which is making a big difference.

Ruby uses the app, Proloquo2Go, to communicate with her teachers, her family and other children. She taps on symbols, constructs a sentence and out it comes, spoken in a child's voice. So in the playground, she taps "head, shoulders" to choose a game. At lunchtime she chooses "lasagne" and "carrots" adds "please" and "Tina" and hands it to the dinner lady. And in the classroom she reads a story and then taps out answers to questions about it via the iPad version of the app.

Sticker book and app Old tech and new tech

Pauline Hoy Green, Ruby's one-on-one learning support assistant, explained to me that the app had replaced a less hi-tech communications tool - a book with stick-on pictures of various objects. The app, which has been updated recently and features the voices of two British children, eases the frustrations of a child who seems desperate to make the world understand her. "It's given her a voice," Pauline says.

Spending a day watching Pauline and Ruby at work was fascinating. All my assumptions about the capabilities of a child with autism were challenged as she used the app in all sorts of sophisticated ways. Ruby appeared to be more confident with the technology than many an adult and that was confirmed by her father Craig when he arrived to pick her up at the end of the school day.

He told me that his daughter used the app at home to "twist me round her little finger," and that IT in general was a big part of her life. "She's even shown me how things worked on Sky+ that I didn't know about."

Ruby and Pauline using the app Ruby and Pauline using the app

Now as apps go, Proloquo2Go is pretty expensive - £129.99 - and there is plenty of cheaper software, for a range of devices and operating systems, aimed at helping children with autism. But for Ruby's family and for many others getting access to the right technology is now a priority.

I talked to Carol Allen - who's worked in this field for a long time. She says that if an app can give children a voice it is worth the expense. "Why can't we see that it is the same as giving a wheelchair to someone who can't walk?"

"People are going app crazy," Carol said, explaining that they were beginning to have a really big impact on the way children with all kinds of special needs were taught. Some teachers were even creating their own apps, tailored to the needs of a specific child.

But she also had some words of caution. "You have to start with the needs of the learner, and the teaching - not with the shiny kit." And she pointed out that new technology did not always match up to expectations. "Look at electronic whiteboards - people said they were the solution to everything. But they didn't work for the visually impaired."

In all areas of education, a lively debate is under way about the contribution that new technology can make, and just how much needs to be spent on it. But children like Ruby Dunn - and the people who work with them - are giving everyone else an example of how life-enhancing the right technology can be.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology correspondent Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 21.

    Sounds interesting. It will be interesting to see how this girl develops over the years in comparison with other similar children. Different ways of helping people communicate are always good. I have worked with autistic and other special needs children. Now can we have an app to help government ministers understand what is needed in education and apply without having to boost their own egos!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    This is about a little girl who's life has been improved by technology. It's got nothing to do with who makes the damn things. Can't you anti-Apple people leave your petty rivalries at home for once? Your utter inability to spot when your Pavlovian reactions to seeing the words "Apple" and "iPad" are inappropriate doesn't exactly support your insistence that Apple users are the stupid ones.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 19.

    This technology helps in so many ways: not only does it give children who are non-verbal an opportunity to participate in classes, it does so in a cool format. Many typically developing children have access to iPads and iPhones, and by using devices which are not seen as designed for special needs, children affected by autism and other disorders are less likely to be teased for their difference.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    Interesting coment Baldbloke. Though it isn't Apple who are developing these Apps, it's a whole host of companies and individuals. Apple just provide the vehicle.

    You say that this isn't the answer? So do you have any alternatives to technology helping out? How would you help those who can't or struggle to communicate needs and wants verbally? I would be very interested.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 17.

    I'm on the autism spectrum and in touch with a lot of adult autistics mostly in the 35 - 60 age range. Many of us would have benefitted enormously from technology like this had it been available - to communicate our needs and our intelligence in a low stress way.

    I'm very happy for future generations of thousands of autistics who can have better quality of life growing up than we did.

 

Comments 5 of 21

 

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