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: Are Tablet Apps Revolutionizing Augmentative and Alternative Communication?

Are Tablet Apps Revolutionizing Augmentative and Alternative Communication?

Online Media Specialist

I have found myself surrounded by a community that I never thought I would cross paths with more than once in my life. It started with me attending a university with one of the strongest health care education programs in the nation for business marketing. Then, my first free-lance job out of college was at a wonderful company called TapSpeak. Now, I'm coming up on my one and a half year mark with both MMG, Inc. and my current beau. All four have one common thread; they have all taught me about the challenge of developing communication skills in the special needs community (and I found all of them on the Internet).

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is used to supplement or replace writing and verbal communication for those with complex communication needs. They can also teach nonverbal skills to people who have trouble with social cues or daily routines. My main squeeze works with children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), symptoms of which include a multitude of language disorders. Children with ADHD may have difficultly comprehending the semantics and pragmatics of language, so they have trouble attaching meanings to words and the social use of language.  

Touch tablets, like the iPad, are becoming a surprise hero in the world of special needs children. Their portability, multi-touch capabilities, and flexibility are all features that make tablets perfect for special needs educators. Before apps started to be released by independent developers, the go-to systems were ones that had interfaces and technology specifically designed for only special needs use. They currently cost around $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the model. Unlike iPad apps, these devices can frequently be financed or covered by insurance and are designed to be used by patients as a complete substitute ACC device. iPad and Android apps take certain features from their more advanced counterparts and put them in a condensed format that can be used on a device consumers already own. The features of tablets coupled with the lower prices of apps add to the appeal of apps for consumers who do not need the full features of speech communication devices.

Children with ADHD and autism have an initial instinct to touch anything that is new as a way to familiarize themselves with the object. This makes touch screens attractive to children who see an immediate response to their touch. There are a number of inexpensive and free apps that help teach children to associate words and nonverbal cues with emotions. This is an educational skill used by teachers but it usually makes use of stagnate cards, which can be less visually stimulating. This isn't to say that kids can be left with a tablet, and the problem is solved. In fact, kids with ADHD need their time with an iPad closely monitored and regulated. It is important to keep children grounded in reality through limiting time on electronics, even if they are more active on tablets.

People with cerebral palsy and Lou Gehrig's disease frequently use ACC devices due to both language or speech disabilities and impaired motor skills. Although they get many of the same advantages from ACC devices and eTablet apps, they also need them to speak forthem because they physically are not able. ACC apps, like the ones made by TapSpeak, are designed to help people with low functioning motor skills. Apps like TapSpeak Choice use picture boards to help children create sentences. The major draws of the apps are the fact they take into account shaky hand motions, have an extensive button library with simple pictures designed to not overwhelm special needs users, and feature full scannable keyboards for sentence structure. Prices of these apps can still be much more expensive compared to the prices customers may be used to seeing and can range from upwards of $150.

Other Special Needs Apps to Check Out

TapSpeak Choice ($169.99; iOS) - TapSpeak Choice is a full feature ACC app. The app enables users to communicate with two-button communication boards and complete speech generation page sets.

First, Then ($9.99; iOS, Android) - First, Then was designed to help make visual schedules for people with communication needs, developmental delays, and autism. The app shows specific steps to complete an activity on the schedule, paired with visual pictures to help develop a routine to create a more structured environment.

Dexteria -($4.99; iOS) - Hand exercises are used to help improve fine motor skills to build strength, control, and dexterity. The automatic tracking and reporting feature allows for parents, teachers, and occupational therapists to identify time on task and progress.  

Social Skill Builder Lite ($2.99; iOS) - This app helps teach key social thinking, language, and behavior skills that are the foundation of everyday living using interactive videos. It is available in both lite and full version.

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The Healthy(ist) blog is a platform to share, learn about, and debate topics related to public and social health, scientific research, health communications, and behavior change.
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