Published: 02nd April 2020
Here's why this speech language therapist vouches for apps, to an extent, to teach autistic kids
World Autism Awareness Day is observed on April 2. It is an internationally recognised day to spread awareness about autism. About one in 100 children in India under age 10 has autism, a study says
Though Lipsa Jena, the Speech-Language Therapist at Centre for Autism Therapy, Counselling and Help (CATCH), Bhubaneswar, uses a few applications, she rules out generalised statements like 'This app is 100 per cent effective'. "Autism is an enigma and technology comes in at a much later point when it comes to autistic kids. First comes identification. There needs to be more awareness about the symptoms of autism itself — parents are still struggling with the very basics," she asserts.
Lipsa does mention and appreciates apps like Awaaz, a paid application available both on iOS and Google Play store, that helps non-verbal autistic children communicate. These tools are called Alternative Augmentative Communication (ACC) — communication methods used to supplement or replace speech. But the challenge, interestingly, is not the usage of the app itself, it's the parents. "We use the app for older kids (above 13) but when it comes to younger kids, on one hand, parents are still hopeful that the child will speak and, on the other hand, they are also scared that they might depend on apps and hence, never speak," says Lipsa who pursued a Master's in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (MASLP) from Manipal University.
While Awaaz, which she has used with about 10 to 13 autistic kids, helps children verbalise their sentences through pictures, there are other apps like MITA that help with communication and cognitive aspects of autistic children. It has activities like Match By Colour, Match By Size, March By Shape and more. Apps like Talk With Me (a collaborative learning tool) and Jellow (an ACC) are helpful too, she states. "To an extent, they have worked but we need to work with the child on it intensively because sometimes, when we give them iPads, they get distracted and don't want to use it as a communication tool," she shares. But what always works for them are old school methods like visual scheduling where the child's routine for the day is clearly depicted through pictures on chart.
But what would a Speech Therapist like Lipsa, who has previously worked as a Speech-Language Therapist and Audiologist at M S Ramaiah Memorial Hospital, Bengaluru, want from an app? "Kids tend to get distracted easily, so the app needs to be direct and can't have any other distraction like music or loud colours," she says and adds, "While the child can develop their vocabulary using these apps, slowly, the apps need to make it easier for a child to communicate complex things like emotions and ideas too." They also need to be easily customisable, she avers.
Though Lipsa sees the shift to applications happening in the future, she reckons it won't be a rapid one. At the end of the day, she reiterates that there is no one app that works for everybody and leaves us with the wise words of Stephen Shore (an autistic professor at Adelphi University, US, whose research is about matching best practices to the needs of people with autism), "If you've met one individual with autism, you've met one individual with autism."