A Unique Child

Why Technology Isn’t a Cure-all for Early Communication Difficulties

Don’t be tempted to use tablet computers to offer children access to communication apps too early, says Adele Devine…

It’s hard to escape talk of the miracle that is the iPad these days. Truth be told, we’d probably all quite like one. So, if a child in your care was showing little or no sign of speech, and you had happened to hear about the amazing variety of ‘communication apps’ now being developed for use on the system, your natural reaction might well be to give said child access to them as soon as possible…

“Just wait!” I want to literally shout to parents and early years practitioners. It’s vital that you consult a speech therapist before introducing an iPad – or one of the growing number of more affordable Android alternatives – to a pre-verbal child. Many of the apps in question are fantastic; they do help some children find a voice and are particularly motivating to those with autism. But they are a tool to hold back. If introduced too early, I believe that communication apps could stop some children from ever learning to speak.

So, why don’t I believe early use of tablets computers is appropriate? For a start, many communication apps speak for the child and could take away the point of speaking. Look at it from the child’s point of view – “Why do I need to speak when the tablet will do it for me?”. Children may also learn to use their tablet for fun and games, which might reduce motivation to use it as an assistive communication tool, if it is needed as such later on.

In my view, communication apps should not be used until a child has a good grasp of Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECs). They should be a way of extending the child’s vocabulary of usable symbols. A child must learn the importance of a communication partner and this is better introduced through picture exchange (there is no point in them going and tapping the toilet symbol to tell you they want the toilet; they need to learn to actively gain your attention and show you the symbol). Communication must be two-way to work.

What are the alternatives?

Instead of turning to the iPad et al prematurely, try the following approaches and techniques:

● Develop knowledge and use of sign language such as Makaton, starting with a few simple signs used at home and in the setting.

● Use photographs and symbols, and encourage children to bring the symbol to you and attempt to say the words. An ideal time to start this is at snack time. Try to get on a PECs course to learn more: you don’t have to be a speech therapist to help a child learn communication skills.

● Model speech clearly at every opportunity and give the child the spoken labels for things.

● Reduce the number of words used to let the children learn important words (simply say “Snack time” rather than, “Come on, children, it’s time to have a snack now.”

● Try to link spoken instructions with symbols or photographs.

● Use vestibular stimulation, such as swinging on a swing, while teaching speech.

● Use microphones, voice recording and singing (any device or activity that might motivate a child to communicate).

● Get all who have contact with the child on board (the more consistent the intervention, the more effective it will be).

Let’s not rush in with the iPad too early. Speech therapists can opt to introduce tablets later on, if appropriate. But they can only realise their true potential if the timing is right.

Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School & director of SEN Assist.