Health & Fitness

Keeping Kids Fit: iPads help kids with disabilities learn to talk

A child with Down syndrome swipes a symbol of a cookie, which in turn activates a voice message to ask for something to eat. Another child with autism uses his iPad to spell out messages to answer questions in class. Both children are nonverbal and learning to use the iPad to communicate with others.

This type of technology, also known as assistive communication, is helping nonverbal children with a variety of disabilities to communicate. Mobile devices such as the iPad have emerged as a fun and practical option for parents of children with disabilities. The iPad is the most popular and has the most apps available for children who are not yet talking or talking very little. Here’s how the iPad is helping kids with disabilities learn to talk.

▪ It seems everyone has one. iPads and other types of mobile devices are readily accessible and easy to use. Anyone can walk into a store and purchase an iPad. In contrast, formal assistive communication devices must be purchased through specialty companies.

▪ The iPad is an affordable and portable option for families. The cost of an iPad and other mobile devices is far less than other assistive communication devices, which can cost thousands of dollars. iPads and other mobile devices are lightweight and come in a variety of sizes that are easy for little hands to use.

▪ There’s the cool factor. iPads and other mobile devices are rapidly becoming part of children’s culture at home, school and community. A nonverbal child carrying an iPad looks no different than any other typically developing child.

When considering an iPad as an assistive communication tool for a nonverbal child there are some important things to remember. It’s never too young to start. Waiting for a child to start talking before introducing the iPad is like waiting for the child to fail. Research has shown that introducing assistive communication can help build a strong foundation for language and sometimes helps children to start talking sooner.

An iPad won’t replace a child’s talking. Just like other language interventions, the goal of assistive communication is to get nonverbal kids talking. As children who use assistive communication learn to talk, they rely less and less on the device.

For parents who are thinking about an iPad as a possible solution for a child who is not yet talking, here are some tips to get started:

▪ Play and explore with the iPad and communication apps yourself before introducing it to your child so you can become familiar with the features.

▪ Turn on the iPad’s Guided Access locking feature under settings > general > accessibility > learning. This will lock your child into the app and prevent him from pressing the home screen to get out of the app.

▪ Set a passcode on the device so your child cannot access it without you there. It’s important when first using the iPad that your child uses it with you.

▪ Enable restrictions under settings > general > restrictions to disable features such as Internet access, in-app purchases and movies.

▪ Invest in a sturdy case to protect the iPad.

▪ Get training and support. Contact the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST) program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine to get training on how to use an iPad as an assistive communication device. Parents can also borrow an iPad from the center’s lending library and try it out. All services are free of charge.

Here’s a list of mobile apps that target language development and communication skills:

▪ My Talking Tom is a free app and available on Apple, Google Play, Windows Phone and Android. This app targets speech development by helping children play with sounds and words and allows the child to hear back how they said it.

▪ Tiga Talk is $4.99 and available on Apple devices. This is another kid-friendly app that targets speech development by teaching and encouraging children to say speech sounds.

▪ Sentence Builder is $5.99 and available on Apple devices. This app targets language development by allowing children to unscramble sentences to match a picture.

▪ SPEAKall! is a free app available on Apple devices. This app is a picture-based communication program that helps children to construct simple sentences to make requests such as “I want cookie.”

The most important thing to remember when using an iPad or any other mobile device as an assistive communication device is to have fun. Choose motivating activities to engage a nonverbal child in communication. For more information on assistive communication or to borrow an iPad contact the FAAST South Florida Regional Demonstration Center at 305-243-5706, or visit pediatrics.med.miami.edu/community-outreach/assistive-technology.

Michelle Schladant, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of the Mailman Center, Associate Director of the LEND program and South Florida Regional Director of the FAAST program at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.

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