This article on technology and autism appeared in The Globe and Mail today.
I’m worried that some people will view it as another autism miracle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ecstatic about the iPad and other technologies and the awareness this brings about autistic intelligence. I have cited the research about the EEG’s and FMRI’s in previous blog posts where it shows the brains of non verbal individuals with various severe disabilities lighting up like typical brains. In other words, we have evidence that many non verbal individuals can understand what is said to them and have complex thoughts. What was presumed as “functioning at a level of an infant” can no longer be assumed.
I feel compelled to remind readers and hopefuls of a couple of things. The first being that non verbal individuals with various “severe” disabilities (I use quotes because of the way that’s been so misunderstood in terms of intelligence), have been using devices for years. Typewriters, computers, Vantage Lites, Lightwriters and more. With Adam, I chose to use the Alphasmart Neo because it was cheap and portable and I could download our conversations onto the computer. Yet all it offered was the chance to practice typing. It did not have the windows and picture symbols of other programs found in expensive devices. Now the iPad provides this.
Many of these devices are so expensive that it is not feasible for many families to obtain them, costing upwards of sixteen thousand Canadian dollars. Repairs can also cost thousands. The advent of devices like the iPad makes communication so much more accessible, although many adults and families can still not afford them. They may, however, be easier to get into their hands through schools and subsidies.
My point is that we’ve known for a long time that technology is important, and that autistic individuals can communicate with them. It’s not a sudden miracle or epiphany, I hope, to realize that autistic people are intelligent, and the community is as diverse as any other, meaning, that levels of ability and intelligence are variable in every group that we are trying to define.
Now to my next point. We can’t expect to plunk an iPad into the laps of our children and expect them to know how to communicate with it.
Just over five years ago, I began typing with Adam. I found I had to facilitate him by supporting his lower forearm. If I had not, he would have typed the letters over and over or typed a word he loved. It continues to be a challenge to get him to focus because open-ended communication is very difficult for him. Supporting him did not mean I directed him. I learned by people at the University of Syracuse, and through my own studies, how to support him and apply, in his case, a backward resistance pressure. By actually holding his hand back from the keyboard, he had to type with more force and intention and this seemed to help him complete a sentence. I neutralized his hand in the centre of the keyboard and he went from there.
I received a whole lot of criticism because of the FC controversies back then. I still did not give up. I knew, because Adam could read since eleven months of age, that he was a candidate to become an independent typist and communicator.
Fast forward five years later and we’re still at it. I’ve been observed by many Centres and professionals and I’ve not known a lot of what Adam types in order to prove that his communication is reliable. I do this by asking him questions or talking about things he did that I would not know. I have to keep my skills in check.
Today, he types somewhat independently. He sends me a short email everyday from school, primarily because they have not been trained in supporting him. If I need to support open-ended communication, my hand is further back on his arm. He will usually say the word or letter now before he types it and he types fast that if I don’t slow him down, he may lose sight of what he is trying to write. For communicating wants and needs, Adam can verbalize or type on his own. Give him YouTube, and he’ll type whatever he wants — from “water slides,” “Walt Disney,” and “Psychedelic Cartoons.” We recently visited an AAC expert (Augmentative Assistive Communication) and her response to my support was that my method was not very “facilitated,” just some marginal support. Not only that, all the nuanced support I give him all the way down to my patience and energy is difficult to document, but so important in teaching how to use a device for “functional” or “social” communication.
Adam also uses picture symbols on devices. For this, he can communicate mostly on his own, unless he gets distracted or is very anxious. When an autistic person is anxious, communication tends to fall apart. Text to speech functions have enabled him to speak in full sentences.
We are still learning. My point is that I am always learning to be an effective and patient communication partner. Reciprocal, social, open-ended, unpredictable communication is not so easy for him, and many other autistic people like him. While technology is a doorway, we can’t just open it without excellent guides, or without the commitment to keep at it for many years, even perhaps when it seems as if we are making little progress. When someone says to me that “Adam doesn’t type with me,” I immediately know that there is a lack of training or understanding what being a communication partner really means. It is an affirmation that the expectation and onus falls upon the autistic child — not the parent, therapist or teacher.
My hope is that, in addition to providing much needed resources like communication apps and iPads, we have better understanding and training to engage with autistic people as they are. Adam mostly communicates in metaphor. His language acquisition is unique and different than that of his typical peers. He could read and count by eleven months of age, but he couldn’t “talk” to people. Certainly he didn’t stop acquiring language or learning after that! As I’ve watched him over the years, I try to see the way he scaffolds his language and knowledge. His language and way of seeing the world seems mostly associative, symbolic and visual.
The iPad and other accessible technologies are encouraging in so many ways. I hope that the EEGs, FMRI’s and the other “proofs” we seem to require from autistic people in order to validate them, also lead to an enthusiastic desire to understand autistic people — their value, humanity, and of course, how they learn.