Assistive Technology for Children with Autism Shows Rapid Advances Since the 1980s

CC BY-ND by Ant McNeill

CC BY-ND by Ant McNeill

Children with autism currently have a variety of assistive technology devices available to them to help them with communication, executive functions, and organizing their daily routines. Devices utilize all levels of technology, from simple picture schedules to multifunction augmentative communicators. These devices have seen a rapid advance in the level of technology they utilize over the last 30 years, allowing children with autism to function within the social structures where they live and go to school.

Communication devices for people with disabilities have their roots in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, children with disabilities began to receive special education services through the public schools, and the need for communication devices for these children became apparent. Early devices used with children in public schools consisted of visual boards that allowed users to point to pictures or spell words. These systems were developed primarily for children with physical disabilities and did not focus on the unique needs of children with autism.

In 1985 the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS, was developed by Andrew S. Bondy, PhD, and Lori Frost, MS, CCC/SLP. Introduced at the Delaware Autistic Program, PECS was developed to facilitate communication for individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities. Children are taught to identify a picture of what they want or need and hand that picture to the person they want to communicate with, who immediately responds to the child’s request. Once the simple exchange of a picture for a want or need is mastered, children are taught to sequence pictures into sentences and to use pictures to respond to questions.

The PECS system uses Picture Communication Symbols, or PCS, that are now available through the Meyer-Johnson software program Boardmaker. This system continues to be widely utilizes in public schools, daycare centers, and in-home therapy programs as it is simple to use, portable, and fairly inexpensive.

In the late 1980s, the personal computer became a household item, and computerized communication devices began to appear for children with disabilities.

In 1991 electronic augmentative communication became more usable for children with autism with the production of the first Dynavox communicators. Dynavox devices were a step up from previous electronic communicators in that they offered touch screens that could accommodate PCS or other pictures. Children no longer needed to have an understanding of letters or symbols to use electronic communication devices. Dynavox and other similar communication devices evolved throughout the 1990s and 2000s to become more versatile and user friendly for children with autism.

Assistive technology for children with autism has taken a huge leap forward in recent years with advances in portable touch screen technology. Portable touch screens have been available in the form of smart phones and personal data assistants since the 1990s, but these devices were not practical for children to use.

iPadIn 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, which exclusively utilized touch screen technology and easy to use applications, or apps. Children with autism were observed to be particularly attracted to this type of technology and the portability of the iPhone made it practical for parents and teachers to use with children.

Building on this technology, Apple introduced its first iPad tablet computer in 2010. The iPad offered a larger size, portability, and the same type of apps as the iPhone. Children with autism are highly attracted to tablet computers and show motivation to use these devices, so PECS and other communication systems have been adapted for use on the iPad. As tablet computers have become more widely available and affordable, these programs have been adapted to work with other tablet brands as well.

Children with autism are now able to use Proloquo 2 Go and other communication apps on the iPad and other tablet computers, allowing them to communicate with others in multiple settings.

Each month our Autistic Spectrum Digest offers a review of an iPad app specifically designed for children with autism. The current issue 2 has an article on “How to set up an iPad for Autism”. Download your free app here.