How Touch Technology Provides Hope

Brandon Bailey of the San Jose Mercury news penned a tremendous article on autism today called, “Using touchscreens and apps to treat autism.”   This is a story that has been in the press with some regularity, but my sense is up until now the audience being reached primarily consists of early adopters (those folks who are first to try new technology).

This  Mercury article  is timely and can do much to educate the general public (those for whom technology is an afterthought).

I would encourage you to read the entire article, and forward it along to family and friends.  As someone who believes touchscreen technology adds a wonderful set of tools to the arsenal for overcoming autism, here are some of my thoughts based on a few quotes from the Mercury piece.

Giving Children A Voice

These tablets are giving children a voice,” said Gary James, a Connecticut father who started a website to review apps for children with special needs, based on his own experience with a 6-year-old son, Benjamin, who has autism.

I agree with Gary James when he says, “these tablets are giving children a voice”, although some believe statements like these give parents false hope.

I don’t believe in giving false or empty hope, but it is important to give some hope.  From the moment children are diagnosed with autism there are countless facts, figures, and experts sobering parents about the daunting task before them.

My wife and I have navigated this terrain for almost 20 years.  We have heard people with and without children with autism, consistently caution us about the fruitlessness of pursuing certain treatments, therapies, or even technologies.

While we appreciate this help, and have avoided numerous possible paths for helping our son that we deemed too risky, we have not embraced the cynicism.  The cloudy disposition of those who insist there are no sunny days for families with autism.  Simply put, we believe in hope and even insist on it.  Every day we look hopefully forward in anticipation of good news and open doors.

These are open doors of possibility for our son’s life, which may be unseen today, but will be visible tomorrow.  Something or someone who comes along to make his quality of life better, easier, or happier.

IPads and apps are just such an open door for many children with autism, and their families.   I believe the IPad is only the beginning, as one can easily see a future where Android (Google), webOS (HP), and the windows (Microsoft) platforms make their own contributions.

There are many reasons for hope.

I do understand the danger of someone believing the singular purchase of an IPad will cure their child.   The truth is that there is no cure for autism.  Kids can grow, change, improve, and recover, but autism will likely leave small reminders that it remains in even the best situations.   This is not a bad thing, because every step forward can be celebrated as a breakthrough or miracle.  A victory of hope over cynicism, possibility over frustration, and joy over pain.

I know a tremendous number of kids who have made breakthroughs in speech, academic ability, and in some cases had their label removed altogether.  I also know kids whose miracle was typing the simple word “yes”, or being able to say “hello” with a digitized voice.  Regardless of the level of success each one of these kids is at some level able to express themselves in their own voice.

If touch technology can make that happen…sign me up.  Sign everyone up!

Touch technology is here to stay, and some of the greatest beneficiaries of this revolution will be special needs children.   This is why it is an area that has captivated our focus here at Digital Scribbler.

So we come to a question…how can IPads, apps, and touch technology help my child with autism in practical ways?  Short of a miraculous event, what can I expect it to do for our family?

Here are some of my thoughts…

  1. It helps them to be included
  2. It provides a means for interaction
  3. It can relieve stress
  4. It can help them communicate

Included

When a child with autism has cool technology familiar to typical kids, it helps those kids connect.  Autism stops being an obstacle, as the technology provides a means for typical kids to relate.  It acts as a relationship bridge.   This type of bridge will put kids on the path to inclusion.  Rather than looking at the disability, they watch an autistic child play angry birds and say, “cool..I love that game too”, and a relationship is born.   Where typical kids might normally exclude out of confusion or fear,  they can cross this bridge, make a connection, and include.   Any time kids with autism are included in mainstream society it is a miracle.   Tools using touch technology help make this happen.

Interaction

Hope Technology School is mentioned in this article as the inspiration for HP creating the Hacking Autism initiative.  When observing the relationships between typical and special needs kids at the school, visitors quickly learn their classroom culture is one that uses technology to help kids connect.

Non-verbal children interact with typical ones by playing games, creating movies, and communicating with software like Proloquo2go.    Children with motor challenges receive interactive help from their typical peers to use keyboards, mice, or navigate touchscreens.  The academic progress or achievements often pale next to the victory of inclusion unfolding before your very eyes.

This type of interaction creates interdependence that remains with these children into their adult lives.   Children who attend Hope Technology School receive life long friendships built on years of this type of interactivity.

Touch technology is  a powerful interactive tool that can help fulfill the dream of inclusion.

Stress

The team here at Digital Scribbler has seen a number of autistic children whose primary use of touch technology is as a stress relief.   This is an important and undervalued role for Multi-touch devices.

Parents of children with autism like myself, are able to use these devices to transition our children from one event to the other, with far less anxiety than before.  While this may seem uneventful to the average person, it is on the miraculous breakthrough level for many of us who parent children with autism.

Communicate

Can touch technology give children a voice?  Can kids who are non-verbal communicate using this technology?  The simple answer is yes.

Through the the simple use of an app called yes/no a child can make their needs and preferences known for the first time.  Those who are more capable or advanced can use an app like Proloquo2go or Assistive Chat to carry on conversations.

Do I call this a miracle or a breakthrough?   The short answer is yes.  The explanation is longer, and need not be expounded on in great length here.  Let me simply say, when a child, who is silent, communicates in any way, it keeps them from being dehumanized.

Humanizing non-verbal children with autism is a significant step toward improving their quality of life, because it changes the way people treat them.  No longer are they to be ignored, forgotten, or segregated into isolated islands of invisibility.  They can independently press one button indicating “no” in answer to a request, and the world around them can no longer limit the person to the housing of a body, they must hear a voice.

The Future

“I think it’s always good to have more options and choices,” said Danielle Samson, a speech pathologist who has demonstrated iPad apps for families of autistic children, in seminars organized by Via Services. She said she’d like to see more apps for other devices and software platforms, including Android and Windows, and apps designed to help children with grammar and social skills.

One of our goals at digital scribbler is to develop software for social stories and communication.   We won’t limit ourselves to the iOS, because we believe platforms like Android and webOS require great software as well, so people with autism have choices.

 Rosa, a former video game producer who said Apple’s iPad has changed her son’s life, said she would prefer more choices, better quality and lower prices.  “Right now it’s kind of a Wild West in terms of app development,” she explained. “A lot of people who have experience with kids with special needs are putting out apps. They have great ideas and great content, but unfortunately they sometimes have clunky designs and clunky interfaces.”

We have already begun working with some great Silicon Valley designers to develop simpler interfaces with greater sensory appeal.  This will do more to attract the children who are resistant to these devices (not every autistic person loves touch technology…they are not all alike).

HP recently launched a website, hackingautism.org, where anyone can submit ideas for touch-screen apps that could help people with autism. Programmers who visit the site can sign up to work on the ideas at a volunteer “hackathon” in October.

We believe hope is on the horizon for millions of autistic families around the world, as small determined groups like ours, combine forces with HP and their Hacking Autism initiative.   We can see a day where medical, technological, and social changes create a new and brighter future for people with autism around the world.

 

About Russ Ewell

Since 1994 I have been devoted to the research and application of innovative technology solutions to education. My passion for these pursuits has been driven by my experience as a parent of children with special needs. During the economic technological growth explosion of the 1990's I was lived and worked in Silicon Valley, and was fortunate enough to find a group of people with similar interests and passions. As a result I was able to launch a non-profit called Hope Technology Group whose mission became advancing the use of technology in education. We eventually launched Hope Technology School, which has used technology to build a fascinating and effective educational program that practices full inclusion. Around the same time, I was fortunate enough to develop and build an awarding winning program called E-Soccer with the help of great friends and excellent coaches. These endeavors have left me with a continuing hunger to learn more about the possibilites of education, technology, and inclusion.

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