Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Tablets Aid Autistic Communication

By Stephen Luntz

Most non-verbal autistic children prefer to use tablet computers to communicate rather than sign language or picture cards, according to research in New Zealand.

Children who are unable to speak and struggle with even the most basic communication were offered tablet computers loaded with the Proloquo2Go app. Dr Dean Sutherland of the University of Canterbury’s School of Health Sciences says the app is “the Rolls Royce of communication-based apps and can be programmed to meet each child’s needs as they develop”.

In the study, 60% of the children chose the tablet in preference to two other communication options. “This is an exciting finding that provides evidence to support the use of these devices, but we have some way to go to fully complete this study,” Sutherland says. “The next phase is to specify what it is the children want more of.”

Sutherland believes that in addition to the portability of the tablets, autistic children are drawn to their attractive design and the use of a touchscreen rather than a keyboard and mouse. “I think there is also something attractive about the nature of the voice output,” he says.

Roughly one-quarter of the 100–150 children diagnosed with autism in New Zealand each year do not learn to speak sufficiently to communicate their needs.

“Many children with autism eventually learn the art of communication,” Sutherland says. “We hope to show that this can be done more quickly and efficiently.”

Sutherland adds that “anecdotally there is the odd report” of children and even adults developing unexpected communication skills using the apps, including starting to speak, “but there is nothing in the scientific literature”.