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

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  • rate this
    0

    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
    +2

    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
    0

    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.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 16.

    So Apple et al are now going to develop apps for every known human mental condition? ASDs for starters, ADHD to follow maybe? What about bipolar disorder or OCD?

    This is not the answer. We might just as well re-open the Victorian asylums complete with superfast broadband access and an internet café...

    BTW my grandson is autistic and non-verbal - that's why I'm interested in this article.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    Again true, but for people like the girl in this article, they have saves thousands and it seems fit for her purpose. Even if the iPad helps a percentage, that would be thousands of people saving thousands of pounds.
    I wonder how much the bespoke communication devices cost to repair as well? Probably as much as a new iPad? More savings then.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 14.

    Hi Jake - Its what is suitable for the individual that's important. Yes, iPad solutions are cheaper than some traditional aids but cheaper doesn't necessarily mean better or fit for purpose - how robust, adaptable, flexible with other communication tools (email, internet, facebook) are they? If they suit the need great, if not, they are not the solution.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 13.

    This is very true Mrs T, I think the exciting thing about this solution is that it costs about £500-£600 instead of about £6,000 that the devices you mention cost. A lot more affordable and therefore achievable to buy for most. If it does the job just as well then why pay 10 times the money?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 12.

    What a fantastic story of an individual getting the voice she so rightly deserves: using technology, a basic human right becomes available. But why no discussion of the wider range of proven communication aids that are available & so much focus & screen time of this 1 product? 'Old/traditional' communication aids have been giving people their voices for decades - long before the iPad 'revolution'!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    Just to let people know, we help people of all ages throughout the UK, for free. Many communication Apps do cost and although giving a person a voice is priceless, you may want to have a chat with us to find out which App may be applicable to you before you spend money on something that may not work for you.
    We haven't tried them all (there are over 200 and counting), but we have tested a few.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 10.

    Shame the first two people to comment missed the point completely. My son is autistic and like the girl in the clip, he is non-verbal. I'm no flag waver for Apple - quite the opposite, but I'm pleased to have been made aware of this app.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 9.

    If people are interested in finding out more about communication Apps and how they can help you or someone you care for, the Aidis Trust have been studying this area for some time and offer free, impartial advice as well as free talks and demonstrations to groups around the UK.

    We can be found at www.aidis.org. We are a national charity specialising in Assistive Technology for over 35 years.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 8.

    look at what is important here....a non-verbal child can communicatate.This can show that those often undervalued and underestimated have something to give.fREEDOM OF SPEECH IS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT.I don't care who makes it it is currently the most affordable communication device available.I am a mum of an 11 year old non verbal boy currently looking at this amazing app wish there was more support

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 7.

    I thought this was a balanced item that gave some pros and cons of using iPads as communication aids, although some of my colleagues sometimes think the iThingies are over-hyped as communication aids. Search for "Communication Matters" to find out more about communication aids and AAC. For Kate: you can get your exam papers on an iPad in Scotland! See http://www.adapteddigitalexams.org.uk/.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 6.

    1 iShouldCoco

    I actually thought this article was ok, he only really explains that he talked to people who use a certain set up. Would be nice to have more articles about different platforms (Any chance of a boot to Gecko article Rory?) I think all of the public sector is ridiculously behind in technology use. We need to get people who know what they are doing involved.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 5.

    As an e-learning specialist, I find this fascinating. Clever and innovative uses of technology to meet specific needs is good to see: no one piece of kit or a single program will suit everybody, but intelligent selection of the right combination can be truly enabling!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 4.

    I am sorry to see that 2 of the 3 comments posted on here are negative comments about Apple and the use of technology in school. They obviously have no experience of dealing with people who suffer from autism or learning difficulties. I wish we had this app when my sons were younger as it would have helped them and us to understand more of how we could have helped them.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 3.

    My son uses an iPad at school as he has problems with his hands & unable to write for longer than a few minutes without pain we tried scribes and laptops to no success. We looked into various tablets, Apple were the only ones with the suitable apps to support his education. He types 25% quicker on a touch screen with little pain.
    BUT EXAM BOARDS DO NOT DO ELECTRONIC PAPERS WHICH IS NOW A PROBLEM.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 2.

    Is it more about selling #Apps and digital technologies? Education departments have become a Gold Mine for technology (Experts?) over the last Decade one of the reasons 'Tradional' Education has gone to the wall whilst other countries like China have advanced

 

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