Efficacy of Alternative Communication Devices for Children with ASD

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One of the primary indicators for ASD diagnoses is disordered communication. Often, persons with this disorder have difficulty reading social cues, interpreting emotive expressions, and otherwise effectively communicating their ideas, wishes, and needs.

Researchers estimate that about 25-30% of all individuals affected by ASD suffer from further language limitations. Often, these persons are largely nonverbal and so rely on alternative means to communicate what they both want and need.

Recently, researchers have begun promoting the use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices (otherwise known as AAC devices) to act as a surrogate in communication. They proffer an appealing approach as they rely on simplistic mechanisms that do not require higher processing. Such devices allow persons otherwise incapable of oral communication to express their thoughts, needs, ideas, and wishes.

They are divided into three major categories: manual signs, picture-exchange, and speech-generating devices. While manual signs require that the user use a universal gesture to indicate their desire, picture-exchange devices require users to select a visual image of the subject or concept to which they are referring. Speech-generating devices, meanwhile, go a step further in that they have users select a line drawing of an object or concept (as seen in picture-exchange devices), but add audible speech output.

There has been little research as to which of these three AAC alternatives work best for extremely limited or entirely nonverbal persons with ASD. In a recent study by Sigafoos et al. (2014) however, they tested the efficacies of these distinct modalities in a single-case experimental design. They discovered that it was the choice rather than the mode of communication that predicted how well their control group would learn to communicate. In other words, no one of the three categories proved to be better than the others; rather, the researchers found that the users who were given the option to select their mechanism after learning how to operate them all, did better than those who were simply given one technology to use. They were also able to generalize their abilities to other tasks and subjects faster.

Overall, their research suggests a promising new approach for individuals with ASD selecting different AACs. They believe that the most effective means of implementing this approach is through teaching the person how to use multiple AAC options, providing opportunities for the user to choose their preferred option, and to continue practicing with that option (Sigafoos et al., 2014). By going through this three-step process of self-determined communication, they believe that ASD users can learn to successfully interact with their peers.

While it is important to keep in mind that AACs are meant for purposeful, rather than conversational, communication, these findings show promise for further developments towards that cause.

To read more on the original research article click here.
Article by our intern writer Sara Power.

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