Eleven year-old, Mayank Mishra, afflicted with mild autism, had difficulty communicating, but with the help of Tap to Talk, an app on the iPad, he can now effectively express himself. This has brought much joy to his family, who are now contemplating on buying an iPad for Mayank. Twenty-one year-old, Preksha, a high functioning autistic adult, loves spending time on her iPad, and activities ranging from reading newspapers, magazines and books to watching videos and playing word games are all done on the latest gadget. Her mother says that her interest in acquiring knowledge has increased tremendously after she started using the iPad.
They are not alone. Under project ‘Prayas’ in Bangalore, initiated by the Autism Society of India in collaboration with the Spastics Society of Karnataka and with support of SAP Labs India, 90 individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders will be trained over a period of three years. Elaborating on the initiative, Kavita Sharma, co-ordinator and head of the project, says, “We have a computer/ iPad training center for individuals in the age group of 5-18 years afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The training aims at enhancing their learning, communication and meaningful occupation by using indigenous technology-based solutions. The project also aims to empower the parents of enrolled individuals along with monthly workshops on awareness related to the existing useful technology-based solutions.”
Introducing Tap to Talk
Autism that impairs normal neural development is a form of a developmental disorder. Individuals with autism are characterized by repetitive, restrictive behavior, and impaired communication and social interaction skills. The cause of autism is yet to be established, but it is generally linked to genetic problems, and has no cure. Such individuals may be overly sensitive in sight, touch, are distressed when routines are changed, perform repetitive body movements, communicate with gestures, repeat words, have difficulty in communicating, prefer being alone, can get agitated with noise, throw tantrums, etc. These may occur varyingly in individuals.
So, how does technology help these individuals? Kavita says, “Autism Spectrum Disorders are very little understood in terms of root cause. These are highly heterogeneous in nature. This situation leads us to look at it only therapeutically. In the recent past, technology has brought in lots of hope for these individuals. Computers, the iPad, the iPhone and some other assistive technology based devices like Alpha Smart, go-talk, etc. along with some software, have made life easier for them and their families. These solutions seem to be the non-threatening tools for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders; where we need to look at issues related to “sensory- defensiveness” (sensitivity to light, touch, noise, etc.) exhibited by them.”
She states further, “These tools, if used meaningfully, through the earlier stages of intervention, help enhance cognition, communication and thus social skills. Through this programme, we are trying to establish the prerequisites for reading, writing and arithmetic, and also to teach social skills through games by turn-taking and meaningful occupation. The other part of the programme deals with computer training; this will lead to developing skills related to employment. These can be related to Internet-based activities, data entry, validation of software, development of teaching aids like PECS, social stories and development of symbols through appropriate animation software, etc.”
Taking the students through a learning session using the iPad
SAP Labs India, Bangalore, donated six iPads to Prayas in June 2011. The iPad, which is definitely more interactive than a PC, owing to the sheer number of apps and ease of use, has been a boon for Prayas. Kavita says, “Our experience with iPad usage has been only around six months, but we can say it with a lot of confidence that we find iPad apps very useful for early intervention, communication for non-verbal ASD individuals and leisure time activities through various interesting games. Also, the iPad's larger screen has made this a particularly useful technology for many of those with special needs. The iPad’s screen holds promise for reading without eye fatigue. We selected the iPad because it has a larger screen with quality visuals, ease of use, navigation and the apps.”
Further highlighting the virtues of the iPad, Kavita says, “It cuts down on the usage of interfaces like the mouse and the keyboard for coordinating with the monitor, which are needed on a computer. Thus, this is very useful for younger kids. Here, touch remains the single mode of operation. Also, the apps are designed by meaningful sequencing and chances of task failure are very few, while the rewards offered are very motivating. We are using Tap to talk, Verbally, Photo story, Math Board, White board, Show me, Autism Apps, and many more. Additionally, the instant feedback and the fact that the tasks can be repeated to reinforce the concepts is an advantage.”
Presksha’s mother, Vani Rajendra couldn’t agree more. She says, “The iPad is the wonder gadget for her. Preksha by nature is a voracious reader and loves to read anything from books to newspapers to magazines. With the introduction of the iPad, she has access to a wider range of literature and her interest in acquiring knowledge has increased tremendously. Also, Preksha is passionate about word search puzzles and we used to get her many books from local book stores. But they too could not cater with so many books every week. Initially, we would look for alternatives on the Internet, but a PC or even a laptop is not that handy. The iPad fits the bill as its extremely portable. This project has helped parents to identify the potential in our children and work towards it. By coming to Prayas, Preksha’s self-esteem and confidence has gone up and she has learnt to work independently. She looks forward to coming there everyday.”
Resonating her feeling is Manjusha Mishra, whose son Mayank has benefited from the iPad. She says, “Mayank was good at computers, but the iPad has opened up a whole new world for him. He loves mathematics, but had difficulty in understanding the concept of subtraction. When I taught him the same with the help of an app on the iPad, he could grasp it quite well, so it’s helping him grow academically. Similarly, he has learned to build words, as he can listen to them and at the same time see the picture, which makes it easier for him to learn. But, most importantly, he can express his feelings now. Since he had difficulty in communicating, initially on the suggestion of the therapy center, we used an album with pictures to help him communicate, but he would rarely use it. However, now with the iPad app Tap to Talk, which lets him communicate through pictures, he has learned to express himself. For example, when he wants to go out.”
Little wonder then that Kavita has seen positive results. “The response has been amazing, right from the tolerance to sit through to completing the task to appreciating their own work. They have accomplished a lot. Some parents want to continue in the next batch as they say that their kids have shown remarkable progress in a short period of five months.” Buoyed by the success, Kavita plans to replicate it in other states. She says, “We hope to present a series of iPad workshops and presentations for all of the various interested parties out there – teachers, special educators, therapists, administrators, coordinators, social workers, parents, technologists and students. We hope that we can intrigue those who have no experience with this technology and bring new ideas by using our own culture settings. We look forward to making this a valuable experience to all and especially those special students with ASD to showcase their abilities irrespective of socio-economic strata.”
Alpha Smart, Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorders, developmental disorder, General, genetic, impaired communication, iPad, neural development, Prayas, Prayas: Empowerment Through Technology, Tap to Talk, workshops