This is a guest blog from DART collaborator Noreen Murphy. You can find out more about Noreen’s project on AAC support and autism at this page.
Technology continues to develop at a pace that shows no sign of slowing anytime soon. The field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for children on the autism spectrum is no exception. Until relatively recently, high-tech communication options for this group were limited to dedicated devices such as the Dynovox, Logan ProxTalker, etc. These devices were often accompanied by a hefty price tag in the thousands which limited them as potential communication tools for many that may have benefited. The research community did its due diligence by conducting research that now forms the foundation of the field of AAC. This provided us with evidence that such dedicated devices could potentially be suitable alternative communication tools for autistic children.
However, the landscape of technology began to change in July 2008 with the opening of the Apple App store with the modest number of 552 apps being made available for download. As of 2013, 1 million apps were available through the apple store and figures from September 2016 indicate that over 140 billion have been downloaded onto apple devices. Such advances are not limited to Apple with the Google Play Store and Amazon among the many app markets to contribute to the potential app market. These developments contributed significantly to the field of AAC with communication apps becoming viable options for download onto increasingly affordable portable devices that could function as communication tools for autistic children. In an attempt to condense information about the hundreds of app options available for download, the Autism Speaks website provides a list of at least 300 such communication apps, but, also includes a statement acknowledging that limited research has been conducted to verify effectiveness for many listed.
This leads us to an issue that is becoming painfully noticeable in AAC research. Though tech-based communication options in both dedicated device and app form are becoming increasingly popular, the research cited to indicate their effectiveness is often outdated. One particular example is that research frequently cited to show that high-tech AAC does not impede natural speech development often originates from the early 2000s; Lombardino and Dyson (2003) and Schlosser and Wendt (2008). This is by no means an attempt to disparage work carried out in the early part of the century, but, it does not sit well that that the iPad, vehicle of choice for many using AAC apps, was not released until 2010. After all, the touch screen technology available to users at this point in time was unlike anything used by devices released prior to this date.
To summarise, as a field that is built around families dedicating resources of time and money to the purchase and use of tech-based AAC with children on the autism spectrum, we can do better. We should be aware of recent research developments in our field and furthermore, should be using these citations to illustrate our knowledge. If updated research is not available, then we need to conduct it. This is the only way we can truly say with confidence that the latest high-tech AAC device or app is an effective communication option for those seeking our assistance.
Blischak, D., Lombardino, L., & Dyson, A. (2003). Use of speech-generating devices: In support of natural speech. Augmentative and alternative communication, 19(1), 29-35.
Schlosser, R. W., & Wendt, O. (2008). Effects of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on speech production in children with autism: A systematic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 17(3), 212-230.