Communication devices for people with autism come in a range of options. With mobile devices like tablets and smartphones becoming less expensive and easier to access, more people with autism who struggle to speak may turn to these devices for help.
Text-to-speech programs may convert written words into spoken words, but this system may not work well for everyone with autism. Instead, sign language and gestures are no-technology systems that work for many people with autism.
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) can help those who cannot learn many words to find good ways to talk to their loved ones. PECS systems have become prevalent in communication devices, from software to hardware.
Children with autism may also benefit from using new technology in their behavior therapy sessions or special education classrooms.
The costs for these options can range from a few dollars for a smartphone text-to-speech app to several hundred dollars for a clinician’s PECS setup.
Why Are Communication Devices & Systems Necessary for Some People With Autism?
There is no cure for autism, but working with a behavioral therapist to help your child improve their communication, social, and cognitive function can help them become adults with as much independence as possible.
There is a range of symptoms associated with autism, which might be mild to severe. Struggling with communication is common among people with autism, and this may include learning few words, learning certain phrases and repeating them, or even remaining nonverbal.
For people who have moderate or severe symptoms with language difficulties, there are assistive communication devices that help people with autism interact with their family, friends, and caregivers. As technology improves, these devices may include communication boards with pictures and symbols, tablet computers, or even smartphone apps.
Types of Communication Devices That Support People With Autism
Communication devices are sometimes called augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) interventions. A behavior therapist works with nonverbal or minimally verbal children with autism to teach them how to use these devices, so they can interact with their families, caregivers, classmates, and even coworkers or employers as adults.
A study on communication devices found that targets for communication focused mostly on teaching children to make requests and determined that these devices were effective for that. Children with autism may also benefit from the cognitive and social development associated with being able to communicate effectively with others.
The Systems Underlying the Technology
There are two basic systems that a therapist can use to help nonverbal or minimally verbal children with autism learn how to communicate. These may include:
- Sign language and gestures. Some children have the intellectual capacity for language but may struggle with making sounds or forming sentences. These children can be taught sign language so they can talk to their caregivers. Children who have more mobility struggles may still be able to point or gesture to express themselves, like pointing to their mouth to indicate that they are hungry. This is a system that requires no technology, although it may require that the person being addressed understands sign language or the specific gesture.
- Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Many devices, whether physical or electronic, use PECS, a system that uses symbols or pictures that help the person with autism learn certain words and how they can communicate with others. Using these symbols, the person can ask or answer questions, make statements, or otherwise have a conversation. Many children with autism respond well to visual stimuli, making communication a concrete experience for them. PECS devices may help children develop better communication skills, along with improved social, cognitive, and motor skills. Because younger children must learn to point accurately to images to have a conversation, this can help with fine motor movements. Being able to communicate can boost self-confidence and one’s willingness to interact with others. Devices that use this system may have a speech generator attached, so neurotypical people who do not have PECS training can still interact with the person. In some cases, the person could use a physical set of cards to show what they want to say.
Both systems can be low-tech or no-tech, using cards or hand gestures to communicate. This makes them portable as well, so they may be the simplest option for many children with autism. As technology advances, there are programs building on these systems that can improve communication between people with autism and other neurotypical people, like classmates or coworkers, who may not be trained in sign language or PECS.
Mobile Technology Is the New Wave of Communication Devices
As more people have access to smartphones and tablets, more assistive technology is easy to come by and more portable than ever.
Text-to-speech technology can read sentences off word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, and “say” them out loud so neurotypical people can understand what a less verbal person with autism is saying. While many of the speech programs are improving, they are not necessarily designed to support people with autism specifically.
Attainment Company produces a product called GoTalks, which is a software program using a PECS system to generate speech. The software can be installed on its own device, which is helpful for clinicians and special education teachers. The program can also be installed on standard computers or tablets. The company produces its own portable devices using PECS to generate speech.
Using a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet is very appealing for many reasons:
- They are not obvious since most people carry these devices.
- They are flexible in the programs you can use on them, although GoTalks works well for many.
- The touchscreens are good for people with weaker fine motor skills.
- Learning computer skills in general is helpful in the modern world.
Since these devices are still new, there is little information on how effective they are compared to a deck of PECS cards, a PECS board, or sign language or hand gestures. Like any assistive communication device or system, it will work on an individual basis, and there will be no one-size-fits-all solution for people with autism.
Mobile apps for a smartphone may cost a few dollars, while software can cost a few hundred dollars. Some software may be supplied by a clinician or partially covered by insurance. In some cases, you may need to cover the cost yourself.
Education Is Crucial to Using Communication Devices & Systems Effectively
Portable technology has been improving for decades to help people with autism communicate. While not strictly “mobile” technology, tape recorders, projectors, timers, and simpler voice output devices have been around for many years. These devices have supported nonverbal people with autism and increased their ability to communicate and move through the neurotypical world.
Education with a behavior therapist or program can support an autistic person’s ability to communicate by understanding social cues. For example, a therapist may teach an autistic child about specific facial expressions, using a video or pictures of faces changing into different expressions and then playing a game to identify the emotion.
Learning certain words with a speech-language pathologist or special education teacher can help the child understand what others are saying. Learning idioms and their meaning can help children with moderate symptoms of autism to understand emotive or expressive language without requiring them to literally understand each word in the sentence.
These classes use technology in different ways. The child does not take the technology with them to communicate, but they will still interact with a computer, software, or other technology several hours per week.
Communication devices used in these therapy or classroom sessions are part of the education process, and that cost will be covered by the program. However, you may need to pay for the time of the educator, therapist, or clinician. Some of this may be covered by your health insurance, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.
No One-Size-Fits-All Solution
Ultimately, there is no one way to help children with autism learn communication skills. Working with a behavior therapist can give the child access to options early in life, and the therapist can help them find a setup that works best for their needs.
For more people with autism, electronic devices offer portability, access to text-to-speech software, and greater flexibility. This gives them the ability to talk to more people who may not have training in PECS or other assistive communication devices.
Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder. (September 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Role of Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Children with Autism: Current Status and Future Trends. (September 2016). Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.
No-Tech and Low-Tech AAC for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): A Guide for Parents. (April 2012). Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Common Assistive Technologies. (March 2020). Illinois University Library.
GoTalks. Attainment Company.
Mobile Technology for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Major Trends and Issues. (October 2012). Conference Paper, 2012 IEEE Symposium on E-Learning.