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New Technology Helps Children With Autism

New iPad programs cater to the visual strengths of young children with autism.  This technology has the potential to help these children communicate in school and at home.
New iPad programs cater to the visual strengths of young children with autism. This technology has the potential to help these children communicate in school and at home.
New Technology Helps Children With Autism
For the sixth year in a row, the University of San Diego is hosting the Annual Autism Conference. We'll hear how educators are using iPad apps to help children with learning disabilities communicate in the classroom.

This week autism experts and school educators will convene in San Diego for the Annual Autism Conference.  A main focus on this week’s conference is on breakthroughs in technology that have helped children with autism communicate in the classroom. 

According to the Center for Disease Control one in 110 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder. Children with autism tend to communicate nonverbally and have difficulty with social interaction and learning abilities.   For years, teachers have struggled to connect with these students, and have had a hard time incorporating them in a classroom setting.  Ideally, these children need one-on-one help.  Bill Thompson of the Orange County Department of Education and Anne Donnellan, director at the USD Autism Institute tell us how the advancement of technology is helping children with autism express themselves.



Bill Thompson is a school psychologist at the Orange County Department of Education. He has been charting the effectiveness of new technologies with his students.

Anne M. Donnellan is a Ph.D. Professor and the director of the USD Autism Institute.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The sixth annual summer autism conference gets under way today at the university of San Diego. And this year, new technology will be at the center of the discussions. It seems one of the major breakthroughs recently through autistic kids has come about because of applications on iPads. Joining me to talk about these breakthroughs are my guests, Bill Thompson school psychologist with the Orange County Department of Education. Hell hello. Bill.

THOMPSON: Hi, Maureen, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for doing this. And Anne Donnellan is director of USD's autism institute. Hi Anne.


DONNELLAN: Hi, Maureen. Nice to finally meet you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both for speaking with us today. Anne, so much is being learned about autism, the different degrees of ability on the autistic spectrum. What are the special difficulties that autistic kids have in classroom settings?

DONNELLAN: Well, the -- in classroom settings and in every other settings, their greatest difficulties have to do with communication, telling their perspective. That's one of the reasons we're very excited about some of the breakthroughs that are available with, for example, [CHECK AUDIO] of various kinds. It allows people help them communicate what they need to communicate. Irrespective of where we think they are on some kind of spectrum. I'm very excited about this. We're gonna be talking about a lot of things related to communication including seeing how each individual person does their best to communicate, but also to have people who can share with us ideas about apps and what's possible for people that wasn't possible a short time ago.

CAVANAUGH: Anne, can you give us an over view as to why children with autism do have a harder time communicating?

DONNELLAN: I think it's very cheer that people are autism have a significant difficulty in what is called movement disturbances or movement differences. This really has to do with integrating and coordinating everything about your body. Your sense perceptions and motions as well as your physical experience and your speech. And the thing about speech is that human beings communicate. And human beings learn language. All you have to do is be around language and provided that you can hear it, you will develop language. Then the question is, under what conditions can you express that? And for a long time we kind of thought oh, people with autism just didn't have any thoughts in their head. And then people came up with alternative means of communication for them and suddenly they were able to get their perspective known. I don't want mean they were all sitting around with a lot of thoughts and they could just immediately type them. But little by little, they grew to a point even those who couldn't speak or couldn't speak very well to communicate their thoughts and their experience. And so I think that anything that we do that supports communication is to the good. And it can't just be, okay, everybody has a little board and it says toilet on it as one of the words. I know that's very important to the rest of us, but people have a lot more to say than that.

CAVANAUGH: Bill Thompson, I want to direct this question to you, Steve jobs, owner of Apple, called the iPad a magical device for those with autism. This sounds like a powerful claim. But is it true?

THOMPSON: I think we sometimes are hesitant. And you hear words like magical or cure or -- we don't want to mislead folks. It is certainly remarkable from a communication standpoint. But even where it goes from a joint attention standpoint. I think for many cases trying to within the educational realm have a student focus on something that's academically charged, that they may share a focus with that structure has been brutally challenging. This is a phenomenon that is not necessarily new to tablets, but if you look at the history of these students, these students are engaged with TV, they're locked in on something they're engaged with. I think the tablet definitely has that component where it really grips students. And it does have a magical component. But I think there really needs to be a supporting curriculum and good instruction that's well thought out and prepared. If that's in place, then we're seeing tremendous gains.

CAVANAUGH: Could you tell us how these apps help autistic kids communicate? Can you give an example?

THOMPSON: Absolutely. I think when you're talking about a spectrum disorder, you're talking about what this looks like -- is very different from student to student. Within our classes, we have students that may have, for example, in their pocket some of them have like a fanny pack or something along those lines. These students throughout the day will communicate different wants and needs. We're trying to move to more abstract forms of communication. The wants, as Anne said, toilet and things like that might be a little bit more tangible, communicating wanting a lollipop or those kinds of things. Those are tangible, reinforcing to the student. We're trying to move beyond to more abstract concept. Tell me what your name is, do you want a break, things that would really fulfill more of this robust communication. It's certainly a challenge. I think that's consistent no matter what picture exchange method you're using for communication. Many of the students that I see, they continue to still have difficulty when you remove that tangible component from it. Or as the language becomes increasingly more abstract, it's very challenging. It does give us a platform with using these devices that fits into a really motivating aspect for the child. And they're really focused and they really want to move forward in trying to community the best they possibly can.

CAVANAUGH: If I'm understanding this correctly, tell me if I'm wrong. What I'm getting from this, if a kid maybe wants something or wants to communicate something, these apps will have pictures of certain things and they can send that picture to a teacher, and the teacher can communicate through pictures?

THOMPSON: Correct. There are a number of applications that started back in 2007, before you looked at the apple store or the app store specifically or even having a formalized communication program. It was just using a photograph function in an iPad touch fair student if they wanted a banana, they could go in, find a picture of a banana and walk over to an adult in the room and indicate that's what they wanted. Now through the application store, you do have a number of different apps that increase from an extremely high level of complexity to very basic single picture items, but the process is the same to seek out staff members or other peers and communicate what they're thinking. But again, how this looks will be a little different depending on the application. But yeah, that's exactly what we're doing.

CAVANAUGH: Anne Donnellan, do we understand the reason that children with autism need to channel the information in this way?

DONNELLAN: No, we don't. These are very, very complex things. Human speech is one of the most remarkable things that's available. Nothing is as good as human speech in terms of speed and flexibility and so forth. But part of it may be that just making something visual, meaning it doesn't disappear, the problems with human speech is, once it's out there, it's gone. The fact that there's a visual output or a visual possibility may just give the person the name to communicate around something. The other thing about the tablets is that it has voice output. Instead of just pointing to a picture, you can press a button very easily, and it'll say banana and tell people that you have something to say. Many of the programs that are there, [CHECK AUDIO] Auguste ap, you can do both pictures and words, so little by little, you can become a little more abstract. And the most remarkable thing to me about giving the written word to people as an option, and it doesn't work well for everybody, but it does work for some is that a number of people that I personally know started speaking once they were using typing to talk, it doesn't speak in their '40s and '50s, things we thought were absolutely unbelievable and impossible. But in fact, the human brain is very, very complex and perhaps the most complex thing in the universe. To think of what somebody's doing now or how they do on our test, that that's as well as they're ever gonna do, is probably a big mistake that we're making.

CAVANAUGH: Truly remarkable. Bill, iPads also, these tablets seem to have a coolness factor among younger generations. I'm wondering if that coolness factor somehow plays into the idea of helping autistic children socialize. Because I know that's another problem that a lot of autistic kids face, and how to deal with other people.

THOMPSON: Absolutely. I think that's a huge component. For the idea of now all of a sudden, you're on the playground, you're out there, communicating. And she's are multifaceted devices that allow you to use a number of applications for a number of core areas that will help the student. A student wants to come over, wants to see what they're doing. We did an exercise this morning doing some turn taking, and down loaded the connect four application. It's a dollar. And I had two students with devices, and they were playing connect four with each other. The thing that was great about it was when the one student's turn was finished, they couldn't just keep going. They had to wait for the other person to do their turn. So you're talking about two different devices. So they would look up and see what the other student was doing, waiting for them to complete their turn, and you see a lot of those social constructs in play. Back to your original point, I think you're definitely right. In these situations, it speaks to the student's intelligence, it speaks to a normalizing quality. And a lot of times peers want to come over and they're interested in what the student may be doing.

CAVANAUGH: There are many children whose parents can't afford iPads or tablet devices. Is there any way this technology can be provided to kids Bill?

THOMPSON: A lot of the foundations out there really went out of their way to give iPads to students over the holidays. I think in addition there have been TAKA and some of the other autism foundations that really support this as well. The other combination is when you're talking about from a school setting, what the school will do is we'll work with a parent and in some instances, the device may go between home and school, it may stay with them within the school component. So it really is working with the opportunities to see -- because we want their voice to be heard in every context. And the portability of this and the fact that we want everyone on the same page and it's so key for what's going on at school to also be happening in the home. Between some of the foundations, between the regional centers, there are a lot of different support avenues to go to try to help support parents.

DONNELLAN: The other thick is when kids start thinking about wish lists for Christmas, and families are wondering what to buy, and that's often hard for a child with a disability, six months early, they can let everybody in the family know, gee, we want to buy an iTouch or perhaps one of the iPhones that is gonna be much cheaper because people aren't buying them anymore and make it more affordable for people. I think that's a major piece. I think there are thoughts on the national level that if we have freedom of speech as a bedrock of our society, we have to give everybody a way to participate. And it doesn't have to be their own speech. It can be speech that's artificial.

CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. I of the just about to ask you, this speech augmenting technology in the tablets, will it help? Is this any sign that it might help children and adults with other conditions such as cerebral palsy or downs syndrome?

DONNELLAN: Of course. And how about all the people who may be facing strokes and facing brain damage from accidents and so forth? The possibilities are enormous. I am just amazed at some of the things that have happened. And I -- I'm not a big person who understands technology terribly well. That's why I'm glad Bill is here. But I see it just making options available that weren't before. The one miracle I've heard about, I heard it from my friend Darlene Hanson, he's a speech and language professional, she now has an empty trunk in her car. And anybody who knows speech language people knows that they always had a trunk filled with items to assess kids. Now she can do it with 300 apps on this tablet, and put her groceries in her trunk.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we are out of time. But I want to thank you both for a fascinating discussion. And I want to let everyone know the sixth annual autism conference is taking place at USD today through Wednesday. And I've been speaking with school psychologist Bill Thompson, and Anne Donna Lynn of the USD autism institute. Thank you both.

THOMPSON: Thank you Maureen. We appreciate it.

DONNELLAN: Thank you.