2023 Winning Scholarship Essay: Assistive Technology Devices

Toddler With Apple Ipad Digital Tablet On Studio Yellow Background

By Esther Kim, Winner of the 2023 YuJa Scholarship Essay Contest

My younger brother Joseph couldn’t talk properly until he was seven years old. Joseph was diagnosed with autism, an intellectual disability and mild cerebral palsy.

He worked hard with his speech therapist every session while his school would try to teach him American Sign Language. Another professional worked with Joseph on an iPad to use as an assistive technology device. It is a miracle sent from heaven that Joseph is able to talk now, almost to a fault, where he never stops talking to make up for his years lost in nonverbal communication.

Although Joseph is able to communicate with his voice, many of his peers are nonverbal and have to use similar devices to communicate their thoughts, wants, and feelings. Many nonverbal individuals with autism face significant challenges in expressing themselves verbally, hindering their ability to interact and communicate effectively.

I myself am studying to become an occupational therapist where I will work with many people in this situation, and have already worked with numerous individuals through volunteer opportunities who use iPads to communicate. Assistive technology devices have emerged as valuable tools to support individuals with autism in overcoming these barriers.

After familiarizing myself with these communication devices, I have drawn conclusions to its many pros and cons. One beautiful aspect I have grown to appreciate is the way assistive technology devices play a crucial role in facilitating communication for nonverbal individuals with autism. I’ve worked with many individuals through their limited ASL, which I am also on the journey of learning for my future patients, but it simply is not as practical because the majority of the population is not fluent in ASL. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, such as speech-generating devices and picture exchange communication systems, allow individuals to express their thoughts, needs, and desires effectively.

”A picture says a thousand words and can be a much smoother, quicker way to communicate for nonverbal people.”

This is also a great way for visual learners to grasp the meaning of new words because sign language may not always provide the extensive understanding as a visual representation might. For example, Austin, one of the children I worked with, who used an assistive technology device, enjoyed pointing at the pictures that would then say the word out loud to communicate their thoughts. A picture says a thousand words and can be a much smoother, quicker way to communicate for nonverbal people. These devices provide a means of communication, reducing frustration and improving social interactions.

Assistive technology devices empower nonverbal individuals with autism to become more independent in their daily lives. Devices like communication apps on tablets or smartphones enable individuals to make choices, request assistance, and engage in activities with greater autonomy. This can be especially important in instances where others who are familiar with their language are not in the vicinity. They would still be able to communicate if they are hungry, what they want to eat, whether they need to use the bathroom, and express their wants. For example, Austin, who I mentioned earlier, at our day program would not be able to communicate many of his needs if I wasn’t there, as I was one of the few people who understood his language, sign, and nuances. By reducing their reliance on others, these devices enhance self-confidence and promote a sense of control over their environment.

“Assistive technology devices have transformed the lives of nonverbal individuals with autism by providing them with a means to communicate, increasing their independence, and fostering social interaction. “

With the help of AAC systems, these individuals can actively participate in classroom activities, communicate with teachers and peers, and engage in learning experiences. One remarkable boy I remember was Justin, who was also nonverbal. Since his only way to communicate with others was his iPad, he became so quick with it, memorizing all the boards and forming sentences at an unbelievable rate. He would tell me whole stories about his trips to Disneyland with his family, just through his iPad. By providing equal access to education, assistive technology devices promote inclusion and support academic progress.

One major drawback of assistive technology devices is their cost. Many high-quality devices and software applications can be expensive, making them inaccessible for individuals with limited financial resources. This financial barrier restricts the availability of these devices to those who could benefit greatly from them. Moreover, individuals in rural or underprivileged areas may face challenges in accessing these devices due to limited availability and support services. One way I have seen this used alternatively was to get paper cutouts laminated with the same visuals and words, and we would teach our students to point to the word they wanted. Although there was no spoken aspect after the “button” was pressed, like with the iPads, it was still a great, and much cheaper alternative.

Assistive technology devices often require time and effort to learn and adapt to effectively. Both the nonverbal individuals and their caregivers or educators must invest significant energy into understanding and operating the devices. I remember when I was learning how to use these communication devices for the first time, I was incredibly slow at it, forming sentences that would take seconds to say in minutes. This can be even more challenging for those with a learning disability such as my brother. However, as I mentioned earlier, Justin who has used these communication devices for years was incredibly quick with it to communicate. The learning curve, however, may be steeper for some individuals, potentially hindering their immediate access to communication and support.

”Assistive technology devices empower nonverbal individuals with autism to become more independent in their daily lives.”

Although assistive technology devices aim to improve communication and independence, they may inadvertently contribute to social stigma. Nonverbal individuals with autism may experience judgment or negative reactions from others who are not familiar with the devices. Such stigmatization can lead to feelings of isolation and hinder social integration, defeating the purpose of these devices.

Beyond that, they also need to bring their communication device everywhere which can come with its own limitations such as having to carry a bulky iPad everywhere, needing to keep it charged, and of course, the social stigma that comes with bringing a huge communication device everywhere. If their battery dies, or they lose their iPad, there goes their only means of communication, which is definitely not something that would apply to everyone.

Assistive technology devices have transformed the lives of nonverbal individuals with autism by providing them with a means to communicate, increasing their independence, and fostering social interaction. However, challenges such as cost, accessibility, and learning curve can also make it not the most accessible way of communicating for individuals. I’ve personally seen great progress and had amazing experiences with assistive technology devices, and can’t wait to see it continue to improve and help many more people throughout the world.

Read more about Esther Kim.

About YuJa

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