Helping children with autism spectrum disorder and other barriers to everyday communication learn and speak their minds?
There's an app for that.
Actually, there are many iPad and iPhone applications that can capture a child's attention, aid in developing skills and give them tools to express themselves, said Kim Hale, a speech language pathologist at Ewing School, which provides education and training to students in the region with unique needs, including autism spectrum disorder.
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Ewing School speech-language pathologist Kim Hale, right, helps student Paul Dailey, 15, form words displayed on an iPad.
Some were designed specifically for that purpose; others have been creatively adapted by therapists and parents.
Ewing School is one of many around the nation putting those devices to use.
"The technology enhances skills of individuals with autism and enables them to learn and communicate," Hale said. "It's portable, easy to use, it's not intimidating."
As of this week, Ewing School will have a total of 22 iPads, iPhones and iPods for use in the school by instructors and aides, some belonging to individual students or teachers and some provided by other school districts. That's enough to allow every student in each program access.
"We can give kids voices and the access to the things around them by giving them a voice," said Ginger O'Connor, a speech language pathologist and director of early intervention and therapy. "Prior to them being able to tell us with some kind of speech-generating device, it was a guessing game."
Hale explained that children with autism spectrum disorder struggle with the ability to coordinate and sequence movements to accomplish a particular task. While speech involves complex coordination of the tongue, mouth and lips, using iPads and similar devices requires simpler motor tasks. The devices can also provide a "video model" to help children see the motions used to speak.
O'Connor noted there are studies that back up the effectiveness of using such technology with autism spectrum disorder students. Ewing would not adopt a technique without evidence-based research, she said.
On Tuesday, Hale used an iPad as she worked with 15-year-old Paul Dailey, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. A year ago, O'Connor said, Paul was non-verbal. He began making progress before he was introduced to the iPad, but he responds well to various apps.
Setting the iPad on a stand, Hale turned on its camera so Paul could watch them on the screen as they went over words using prompting, which involves the student using his hands to prod his facial muscles to form sounds. They moved on to an app where Paul could press a button that would cause the iPad to say the word pictured and printed on it, then one where he traced letters on the touchscreen.
At one point, Paul seemed to be pressing random buttons but then his individual aide, Stephanie Greene, reminded Hale the boy had played a game recently featuring characters from the "Toy Story" movies. Sure enough, that was the app Paul wanted.
"Sometimes you have to just leave them alone and let them show you what they can do," Hale said.
Ewing instructor Caleb Darling uses apps on his iPhone with students and said they generally respond well. He said he's often surprised by what the students know and usually chalks up struggles to him not asking them the right way.
"The biggest challenge is getting what they know out of them," Darling said.
While iPads aren't the answer for every person with autism spectrum disorder and different apps appeal to different students, the devices do offer another way to access that information, Hale said.
Rather quiet as he had his photo taken for this article, 10-year-old Tucker Vannoy perked up when Hale opened an app that allows the user to make a pizza onscreen. He spread sauce and toppings around the pizza, then tapped the touchscreen, each contact taking a bite out of the digital dish.
When he'd finished his virtual meal, Vannoy announced, "all done" and applauded.
"He uses my iPhone a lot, too, and the iPod," said Tucker's mother Nicki Vannoy, an individual aide at Ewing. "It's something that he's interested in."
Vannoy said her son has been diagnosed with Cornelia DeLange syndrome, which causes developmental delays, and autism spectrum disorder.
Using the apps is "a lot different than just putting a piece of paper in front of him and saying, 'trace this,'" she said.
Tucker remained standing as he used Hale's iPad. Hale noted the portability of the iPhone, iPod and iPad devices is another advantage. While computers can be beneficial, they are stationary and often it can be easier to bring a device to a child with autism than get the child to go to the device.
"They like to move. They move to learn," Hale said.
Hale often brings the devices into the gym and works with students on verbs, so they can act out the words.
Price of technology
A private speech language pathologist and owner of Therapy Tech Inc., Hale was brought on as a contract worker at Ewing three years ago to help the school make the most of the latest technology in its programs.
Even before the advent of iPods and other machines, there were speech-generating devices available, at a steep price. In her office Tuesday, Hale displayed one such item, designed to meet the communication needs of people with multiple disabilities and said it was a less expensive model - about $3,000.
"The reason that these things are expensive is it's a small market," Hale said.
While the more common iPads and iPhones might be less expensive than the more specialized equipment, they aren't necessarily cheap. The Apple Store website advertises the iPad 2 starting at $499, while the iPhone 4S starts at $199.
The technology isn't just useful for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Eight-year-old Gwyneth Rouse, the girl whose family bought her an iPad, has cerebral palsy and cortical visual impairment, which affects her hand-eye coordination. Essentially, she can't touch and look at the same time, Hale said.
"She has to look and then she shuts her vision down and then she activates motor and moves her hand to where she wants it to go. She remembers where," Hale said.
With her iPad mounted on a stand attached to her wheelchair, Gwyneth touched a picture of herself and her mother when prompted by Hale and her individual aide, her aunt, Cynthia Daggett. The iPad then said either "Mama" or "Gwyneth."
Gwyneth also plays games like one in which she and Hale took turns blowing up and popping balloons on the screen.
"It's fun, it's motivating, it's interactive, so she's getting better at using her hands," Hale said.