Assistive technology does not stop speech in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder


One of the AAC aids therapists use is visual cards that the child shares to convey what he wants. — Photos: 123rf.com

One of the AAC aids therapists use is visual cards that the child shares to convey what he wants. — Photos: 123rf.com

One of the issues that some individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face is that they are unable to communicate their wants, needs, and thoughts verbally.

The inability to speak has significant impact as it affects the person’s quality of life, ability to learn and interaction with others.

The frustration of being unable to express themselves can also lead to behavioural challenges.

“A lot of children with ASD or other developmental issues have problems with speech development.

“We do conventional speech therapy first to help the child develop language skills. But if the prognosis for a child to develop speech is poor, regardless of age, we introduce Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) aid,” says Dr Susheel Kaur Dhillon, a senior lecturer and speech language pathologist at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

AAC has been around for the longest time, developed to help non-verbal individuals express themselves.

“There are low tech and high tech AACs. Examples of low tech AACs are basic gestures, sign language and use of pictures,” says Dr Susheel.

Non-verbal individuals need tools to express their feelings such as cue cards, but technology has now given speech therapists more options.
Non-verbal individuals need tools to express their feelings such as cue cards, but technology has now given speech therapists more options.

High tech AAC has also been around for a long time. As microprocessor technology was developed, dedicated AAC systems were custom built by small AAC companies using synthesised speech.

These systems were often heavy, cumbersome and expensive, such as the speech- generating device (SGD) or a voice output communication aid that the late scientist Stephen Hawkins used.

But with the development of touchscreen mobile devices and apps, high tech AAC has become more accessible.

Speech therapists will assess their clients and decide on the most appropriate AAC to use, depending on the individual’s competencies, support and family situation.

Use of assistive tech is increasing but like all AAC aids, it requires the guidance of speech therapists.

But the biggest challenge therapists face in using

AAC – even low tech ones like sign language and visual cards – is that parents worry that their children will come to rely on it, and will not develop speech.

“So much research has proved that there is no negative effect to using AAC. The positive effect is that the child might start speaking but it certainly will not stop the child from speaking,” stresses Dr Susheel.