‘Augmentative' Devices Aim to Help Children With Autism Communicate

By Rebekah Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Imagine feeling ill and being unable to tell anyone what hurts. Or longing for pizza on your eighth birthday but ending up with Chinese takeout because you couldn't explain what you wanted. These are the kinds of frustrations, experts say, that are faced by the more than 1 in 150 children in the United States who have a diagnosis of autism.

The solution to some of those problems could be the push of a button away. A set of aids -- ranging from simple, notebook-size plastic boxes to more sophisticated devices that resemble a clunky BlackBerry -- has been developed to help those with autism express their needs. The devices range in price from about $100 to several thousand dollars. Many are designed to be portable and the simpler ones are also nearly indestructible, a key advantage for children who may rock in a seat against a backpack or are prone to throwing things.

Karen Kaye-Beall, a mother of two children with autism, became interested in so-called augmentative devices for their ability to increase the communication skills of her son, Tyler, who is 15. The director of an autism support center in suburban Maryland, Kaye-Beall has created a small showroom in her Montgomery County home where people can test the devices and find what best suits their family's needs.

The simplest model looks like a toy with picture cards, depicting food, health and daily activities, that slide in and out. Press one of the 12 buttons beneath a picture and the device voices a simple sentence.

Children who have gained some skill with a keyboard can graduate to computer-based applications with a much wider range of data and picture choices. Parents can also enter information about a child for other adults to use in case he or she gets lost or needs help.

Although some parents fear that the use of such devices may discourage their children from trying to speak, Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, says that she hopes to dispel that worry. "If a child is going to speak," she says, "they are going to use all means possible to get there."

She argues instead that the devices may facilitate the acquisition of speech. Hearing a phrase spoken aloud may also help them to eventually say it themselves.

Kaye-Beall explains that children begin to use the devices "like a road map from thought to expression, allowing for more spontaneous speech." She says her son has been using a device for the past month, and "his spontaneous functional speech has increased noticeably."

The one drawback, according to Pam Mathy, also of the Kennedy Kreiger Institute, is that speech pathologists who evaluate children may not be familiar with the devices and therefore lack the expertise to fit a child with the right one. Parents may need to take the initiative researching the right fit for their child.

For further information, go to http://www.foundationforautismsupportandtraining.org.

Comments: davisr@washpost.com.


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