Dec. 1, 2014 08:43 AM
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Where technology and autism meet

Those lovely turn-by-turn directions from Siri’s soothing voice are a lost driver’s best friend. For kids like Seth Wolf, however, they are much more.

The 6-year-old boy diagnosed with autism has long faced severe anxiety in leaving his house.

“He would hold the phone and Siri would give us directions to and from wherever we were going,” says his mother Emily. “For whatever reason the turn-by-turn directions from Siri helped.”

She says maybe it’s the predictability of knowing the next bend in the road. But, whatever the case it’s bettering a tough situation. Seth is not alone. Reports of children on the autism spectrum responding to communication with Siri and other technology-based audio communication have been cropping up in the media. Most recently a New York Times piece chronicled the relationship between a boy and Siri in something akin to a less romantic version of the movie “Her.”

Technology and autism can have a great relationship. It can improve lives. But, experts like local Applied Behavior Analysis therapist Justin Daigle of Therapy Center of Acadiana say there simply isn’t enough research in some areas.

“It requires several years for researchers to see how to best utilize them,” he says of new devices. “It’s a Wild, Wild West of treatment tool options. There are some really great implications but we don’t know why they work for some kids or how they help the development of any of their skill sets. Every kid is different. For some parents those devices are a Godsend.”

For parents like Robyn Blackwell (who is also Autism Society of Acadiana’s board president) a Nook was a game changer for her son in the area of reading chapter books.

“It wasn’t that he couldn’t read — it’s that if he picked up a book and couldn’t read it in one sitting he wanted nothing to do with it,” she says. “With Nook, he didn’t have to think about the size of the book.”

She found that her son, now 17, was able to get into the actual story and read for longer periods of time.

“It got him to understand that it doesn’t matter how big it is,” she says.

Her son also uses a Chromebook to take notes in class and do his school work. He has dysgraphia, which means handwriting is an issue. The Chromebook makes it possible for him to do the written work. A Wii in their home has also been a game changer teaching fine motor skills.

Daigle agrees that technology has changed the game in therapy saying the iPad “revolutionized how we provide therapy.” But, it’s not a method that is likely to replace traditional alternative methods of communication — think sign language or the Picture Exchange Communication System.

“Most of the time we are using those forms of communication as a stepping stool to get vocal language and it’s a shortterm solution. With sign language you are bilingual whereas technology is not a language and is not promoting the parts of the brain that respond to language.”

Perhaps the biggest issue with throwing technology into the mix in a blanket approach is how very different each child and each autism diagnosis is. It’s why the word spectrum is so frequently used. Where someone is on the spectrum of autism makes a tremendous difference in nearly every area of life.

For Seth, Siri may not be a new form of communication, but it is a tool that’s taught him how to do things, like ask a question.

“She didn’t respond to his noises. He had to learn to ask formed questions for a response like ‘What is the weather today?’ Emily says.

Experts like Daigle say technology, like many tools, can help or hinder depending on the child. No matter where they fall on the spectrum, autism most often lends itself to routine and rigid structure. If communicating with Siri requires a scriptlike method of talk it can fall within a child’s comfort zone.

“That can be a good thing or a bad thing. If we are worried about them understanding the back and forth about language there are some good things about technology. However if we are worried about those that are scripted and they stay right here rather than becoming more natural and fluid … it is an individualized approach.”

The balance of technology and tried-and-true methods like teaching sign language may be best summed up in Daigle’s final question.

“When the iPad goes out of vogue will we have to learn to do everything again? American Sign Language has been around for years and it works and it’s not a device.”

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