iPads 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.

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Click the picture to watch the video

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.

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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.

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