Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Autism and Technology

Autism and TechnologyEdit


     The acquisition of language is one of the most important events in child development. Through language, one is able to communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas in ways that, through gesture alone, we simply cannot. Although debates between Environmentalist and Nativist theorists have been long-standing, neither argues that for most children, learning to speak is a relatively ordinary process, which develops at a similar (albeit, individual) rate (Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart, 1996). However, for the growing population of children diagnosed with autism, acquiring language is not so natural (Larney, 2002). This population of youngsters generally has delays in receptive and expressive language acquisition, or may never become verbal (Butler, 1999). For these children, communication is a difficult feat.

     As the number of mainstreamed children with autism in primary classrooms grows, how can teachers accommodate their successful language acquisition? What can be done to ensure that children with autism receive language instruction that is equitable, considering their very different needs? This paper will explore typical and autistic language acquisition, along with the benefits of computer technology in the classroom as a language intervention for children with autism.

Typical Language Acquisition

     Language learning typically begins very early in life. Long before a child is able to purposefully articulate a word to convey an idea, he or she will experiment with different functions of speech (Kuhn, Siegler, Damon, & Lerner, 2006). From birth until approximately twelve months of age, infants engage in five different forms of prelinguistic vocalization. The first of these is the baby’s primary form of communication: crying. Although it seems obvious that an infant will cry to convey any sort of need or distress, what is quite remarkable is that the baby will cry differently to signal different types of discomfort (Sroufe et al., 1996).

     Around the two month mark, infants will begin to make noises when expressing pleasure. These noises, called “cooing”, are composed mainly of vowel sounds (Sroufe et al., 1996). Cooing leads in to the next stage in prelinguistic vocalization, in which babies engage in vocal play. During this stage, infants will experiment with the pitch and volume of their voices (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1997).

     The fourth stage, called “canonical babbling”, is when babies’ vocalizations really begin to sound like speech. During canonical babbling, which occurs at around six months of age, infants begin to make consonant-vowel combinations, like “ba-ba-ba” and “di-da-di” (Ingram, 1989). Until this point in their language development, babies are not yet constrained to the phonemes of their native language. Studies have shown that babies who are deaf from birth, progress at about the same rate up until this fourth stage. Deaf infants are generally slower, however, at producing the consonant-vowel sounds which define the canonical babbling stage. It is therefore thought that the sounds made in the first three stages of prelinguistic vocalization are limited to infants’ physical abilities to speak, while the consonant-vowel combinations of the canonical babbling stage are more affected by what babies hear around them (Sroufe et al., 1996).

     Conversational babbling, or jargon, is the fifth stage of prelinguistic vocalization. During this stage, the intonation and stress a child uses in his or her not-yet-intelligible speech, mimics that of adult language (Sroufe et al., 1996). For example, a child may raise their tone at the end of a string of babbled “words”, clearly signalling a question. The babbling also begins to mimic the child’s native language, in that he or she will use certain sounds more often than others, depending on the sounds most often heard in their native language (Sroufe et al., 1996).

     Around the one year mark, many children begin to say their first words. They start to use one-word sentences, or holophrases, to make requests (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1997). At approximately two years of age, toddlers go through a vocabulary spurt, during which they acquire new words at a very fast pace. Around this same time, their holophrases turn into two-word sentences, generally composed of nouns, adjectives, and verbs. This is called “telegraphic speech”, because the child uses the fewest words necessary to convey an idea (Kuhn et al., 2006). Once a child has entered the telegraphic speech stage of language acquisition, their understanding of syntax and other linguistic components also begins to expand (Sroufe et al., 1996). They do, however, continue to make linguistic errors, such as “overregularization”, which occurs when the child uses rules for past tense and pluralizing, to irregular verbs and nouns (James, 1990)– thus, “go” may become “goed” and “mouse” may be pluralized as “mouses”.

     A distinction should be made between a child’s expressive and receptive vocabularies. Children typically have much larger receptive vocabularies, meaning that they can understand many more words than they are able to produce (Sroufe et al., 1996). It is therefore not at all unusual for a toddler to be able to follow commands long before they are able to say very many words. It is important to remember that there is a lot of individual variation in the pace at which all children acquire both expressive and receptive language. Cause for concern may arise when a child’s language development lags far behind the norm, or when their expressive or receptive language is significantly impaired.

Language Acquisition in Autism

     Impairments in linguistic communication are a major feature of autism. About 50% of all children with autism never develop useful language skills, and the other half learn to speak significantly later than typically developing children. Some begin to speak, but lose this ability in infancy. Others are able to acquire a varied vocabulary, but will use language in an awkward manner (Mash & Wolfe, 2005). For example, they may string together words which do not form a coherent sentence, or they may say things out of context. Many children with autism develop delayed or immediate echolalia, which is a repetition of a word or sentence that the child has heard (Ozonoff, Rogers, & Birtha, 2003). Pronoun reversal is also very common, especially with the words “I” and “you”. When asked, “What do you want to eat?” a child with autism may reply, “You want macaroni and cheese”. Those with sufficient language skills may continuously talk about their interests. This is referred to as “perseverative speech” (Mash & Wolfe, 2005).

     It is imperative that children diagnosed with autism begin a therapy program with a large language acquisition component immediately. Early intervention is one of the most important factors in the linguistic success of a child with autism (Lord & Spence, 2006). But in order for a treatment program to be successful, the child has to be attentive, interested, and willing to participate. As classroom teachers, how can we aid in the language acquisition of mainstreamed autistic children, who are becoming more and more common in today’s classrooms? One method that has been found to be effective is the integration of computer software programs in addition to teacher instruction.

Autism and Computer Technology

     There is a fairly large body of literature attesting to the fact that children with autism greatly benefit from computer technology in their education (e.g., Calvert, 1999; Heimann, Nelson, Tjus, & Gillberg, 1995; Maurice, Green, & Luce, 1996; Moore & Calvert, 2000, (Bosseler & Massaro, 2003; Hetzroni & Tannous, 2004; Passerino & Santarosa, 2008; Williams, Wright, Callaghan, & Coughlan, 2002). Computer programs that are meant to aid in the language acquisition of children with autism are intrinsically motivating, since they are designed to capture the child’s attention and provide reinforcements, such as sound effects and graphics, targeted specifically at children with autism (Calvert, 1999). In addition, many programs have features that allow a parent, teacher, or therapist to individualize the program to suit the needs of the specific child and to target their particular weaknesses. This is important, since the broad spectrum of autism causes these individuals to have varying degrees of ability. The motivational deficit hypothesis points out that children with autism suffer from a global lack of motivation (Jarrold, Boucher, & Smith, 1993). The exact reasons for the lack of motivation are uncertain. Some believe that children with autism have unusual reinforcer hierarchies and therefore receive greater reinforcement from repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviour, known as stimming (Jarrold et al., 1993). Others suggest that these children have a hard time carrying out certain actions due to attention difficulties, a history of task failure, or competing behaviours (Stahmer, 1995). Due to the interesting nature of the programs, along with little to no opportunity for task failure, it has been found that children with autism tend to focus better and remain more attentive to instruction when they are using the computer, as opposed to simply listening to a teacher. In addition, many computer programs made especially for individuals with autism are programmed in a way that reduces self-stimulatory behaviour while still offering reinforcement for positive actions (Hetzroni & Tannous, 2004). For example, if a child clicks on a certain word in a vocabulary game, an animated character may come out and do a short dance. To prevent the child from continuously clicking on the same word for the purposes of stimming, the program may be designed so that something else happens when a word is clicked a second time. The child is therefore more likely to continue with the game or program, rather than getting stuck at one point and being unable to move on.

     The intrinsically motivating properties of computers help children with autism to increase their attention spans during lessons. In an experiment by Moore and Calvert (2000), in which a computer program that they designed to help autistic children gain a larger vocabulary was tested against teacher instruction, it was found that the children in the computer group were attentive 97% of the time, compared to only 62% of the time with a teacher. The success of Moore and Calvert’s (2000) specific program was rooted in the fact that behavioural approaches to the treatment of autism, such as immediate reinforcement of positive behaviour, was combined with graphics, sounds, and colours along with a lot of opportunity for success. The combination of multisensory stimuli has been shown to improve memory for new vocabulary (Bosseler & Massaro, 2003). This is true not only for children with autism. “The potential to present multiple sources of information, such as text, sound and images, in parallel” (Bosseler & Massaro, 2003) makes computer programs effective, as well as fun and exciting for children, thus keeping their attention and allowing them to benefit more fully from the instruction (Doherty & Rosenfeld, 1984).

     It is likely due to the high rates of motivation to interact with computers that other interesting findings have been recorded regarding the use of computer technology in intervention programs for autistic children. Not only do the children pay greater attention when using a computer, but there is an increase in task completion and accuracy of answers to questions regarding what they have learned (Chen & Bernard-Opitz, as cited in Hetzroni & Tannous, 2004). In addition, there seems to be an rise in the autonomy levels of some individuals. This may be due to the fact that using the computer allows the child to make their own decisions and, in essence, take greater control of their learning than when simply listening to a teacher and performing requested tasks (Passerino & Santarosa, 2008). Teaching independence is a major goal in intervention programs for autistic children. For children who already have some functional language ability, using computer programs to aid in communication is beneficial. In a study by Hetzroni and Tannous (2004), after a few weeks of using a computer program aimed at improving communication, autistic children who had some verbal ability were better able to use the vocabulary that they already had. Their immediate and delayed echolalia decreased significantly, and their use of appropriate speech increased. There was also an increase in initiation of conversations; something rarely seen in children with classic autism. What is perhaps most important is that the children in the study were able to generalize the skills that they learned to real-life settings. Generalization of skills is a difficulty faced by most individuals with autism and with most intervention programs. In Hetzroni and Tannous’ (2004) study, their particular computer program included simulations of various natural settings and situations, such as brushing teeth in a bathroom. These realistic settings allowed the children in the study to be able to use the learned vocabulary in real life. It would have been interesting to see whether the vocabulary was generalized to locations other than those used in the computer simulations.

     Although it seems that the use of computers for children with autism is highly beneficial, computers should not take the place of teachers and therapists, but rather complement their work (Passerino & Santarosa, 2008). Teacher instruction is still necessary, as real life interactions are important. In order for children to gain full benefits from computer interventions, it is essential that the teachers, parents, and therapists are properly trained in the use of the programs (Williams et al., 2002). In addition, just like other therapies for children with autism, the computer programs must be used daily in order for the students to show any progress. In a study by Lovaas (1987), it was noticed that teachers found it difficult to allow their students to use the programs daily. This was because, as the children got better at the tasks on the computer, the teachers assumed that the work had become too easy for them. However, children with autism need a lot of repetition as it takes them longer to learn new skills, and they tend to lose these skills quickly without practise.


     The language acquisition of children with autism can be supported by computer technology. The computer is not meant to replace teachers, but rather to act as a resource and tutor for the child. The reinforcing qualities of computer programs designed to help autistic children learn language, make them an excellent addition to any classroom with autistic children.


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