How the IPad Is Teaching My Son to Talk

My Son the Fire Fighter

This is my son. He’s an aspiring fire fighter and a fan of Thomas, Lego, and Angry Birds. He’s also autistic. He has difficulty getting his words out because of a speech issue called apraxia. Basically, his mouth is a klutz and doesn’t do a great job planning out the sequence of events it takes to form words. His mouth would be the worst guest on Dancing with the Stars, ever. Meanwhile, he can understand  a whole heck of a lot more than he can say, which means a lot of frustration on his end and people easily underestimating his abilities on the other end.

What to do? Well, last year he took an expensive, specialized speech-generating device with him to school. His “talker.” Under the hood, it’s really just a modified Windows XP tablet with an extra sturdy case and a handle. Insurance paid for it, thankfully, because otherwise it would have been a stretch to purchase a several-thousand-dollar device, and we might have been at the whim of the school district. They’re lovely people, but we’d heard stories of parents fighting to keep the device with their kids after school and over holidays.

The other drawback with such a specialized device is that our darned kid outgrew it right away. He learned to read and write pretty quickly, and he needed something with more than pictures. Toward the end of the year, it broke, and we questioned whether or not it was worth it to pay for the repairs. The next step up in devices costs approximately $7,500, and it was doubtful that insurance would pay for another.

Enter the iPad.

IPad you say? Indeed. We purchased a refurbished model when the iPad 2 came out. If it didn’t work for speech, it would surely work for something educational. You can buy tons of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) apps for iPods and iPads. Part of the problem is that most of them suck. There are some exceptions, but I think they prove the rule. These apps are made by very dedicated individuals who love their kids, don’t get me wrong. They may or may not consult with speech therapists and I’m awfully certain don’t ever consult with UI or design experts. They’re limited in options, difficult to navigate, and confusing for teachers and students alike.

We had him reevaluated at the same clinic where they’d recommended his first talker. I point this out, because it’s important to get some expert opinions involved before you go spending hundreds of dollars on apps. Given our monetary constraints, they recommended we try Proloquo 2 Go, a $189 iPod/iPad app. That and the slightly more expensive (for the whole package) TouchChat were the only two apps they recommended. I’ll toss in that the free Verbally app works great for fluent readers who don’t need picture supports.

How does it work?  Well, for my son, it’s been an interesting week. I expected him to explore the icons and learn to navigate the system. Instead, he’s been switching to keyboard mode and trying his best to type out everything, including words he doesn’t yet know how to spell. He’s absolutely fascinated when you type out a new sentence for him and he can hear it  spoken.  I’d call that a win.

Marziah Karch lives in Portland, Oregon and is the author of multiple books and magazine articles. She also writes for Lifewire and GlitterSquid. She's currently a doctoral candidate researching the information behavior of independent game designers.