We all know how much technology is able to help people with languages, whether it’s learning a new language (such as translation devices) or helping with our own language (an online dictionary and thesaurus, for instance), and how technological advances are continuously being made in other areas of language learning (such as with sign language).

A recent breakthrough has been the ability to teach autistic children to speak who have never previously spoken with the exception of just a few words. It was previously thought that if autistic children of 5 or 6 years of age hadn´t already begun to speak, then it was unlikely they would ever acquire spoken language.

How did this breakthrough come about?

During a study funded by Autism Speaks, researchers tested speech-generating devices on children aged between 5 and 8 years old. The idea was to see whether these devices could teach the children more words than other interventions – and the results were conclusive. All of the children tested learned to say new words, and many were even able to construct sentences. The results were staggering and for many parents it was the first time they’d ever been able to talk with their children.

How can technology make a difference?

The most successful device for this form of language learning was found to be an iPad. Whilst many communication and teaching devices have been used for decades in this field, the iPad has proved successful with its apps, its user-friendliness, the fact that it’s cheaper than alternative means, and that it’s more accessible. It also removes the stigma that autistic children often face from peers as the device is more commonplace amongst their age group as opposed to other communication devices. Researchers discovered that the voice generating programmes the iPad offered were more effective than others previously used due to the tone and clarity. When people speak, the words are pronounced slightly differently every single time, with different inflections in the voice depending on the use of the words in a sentence, becoming more blended into each other if speaking faster, and generally sounding acoustically different. For a child with autism, that difference is vast, and they rely on consistency to learn. The speech-generating apps on the iPad are always consistent; every word is pronounced in exactly the same way every single time. In this way, the child can gradually identify the words and begin to speak them.

How are these findings being used?

A five-year long study has begun to test two language teaching methods on autistic children who have minimal spoken language capabilities. For the direct-teaching approach, the children are taught basic communication skills, such as motor and verbal imitation, and requesting and matching objects. The children are then prompted to use the iPad between 5 to 10 consecutive times to request objects. For the naturalistic-teaching approach, the iPad is used during play and conversation, combined with communication gestures, turn-taking and social interaction with others.  Both methods include the use of the iPad as well as words to communicate; children are encouraged to repeat the words after listening to the device, and to touch the symbols displayed on the screen.

What does this research mean for traditional teaching methods?

The new study will continue until Spring 2017, but we now know that it is possible for autistic children who have minimal language use to be able to learn new words and develop speech patterns at a later age. Using the findings from the original study, language lessons can now be structured to accommodate those findings, enabling more children to be able to communicate where it was previously not thought possible.

What other cases of physical or psychological disorders have you come across where language learning is impeded and new advances are now being made in this field?