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Using Assistive Technology For Visual Mediated Communication For Students With Autism Or PDD

Assistive Technology, Inc.
Dana Bertrand
7 Wells Ave.
Newton, MA 02459

Kathy Kaluza Morris
102 Pinecone Ln.
Sour Lake, TX 77659

Focus for training

Because people with autism typically think, behave, socialize, and communicate in different ways, our focus for training as educators is to structure these areas of differences so that they are directly addressed. Since communication is such a pivotal area for behavior, cognitive and socialization skills, this is the area which is stressed proactively. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that performance will be negatively impacted by the following (Twachtman- Cullen, 1999):

  1. Unstructured/disorganized environments
  2. Inconsistency in task presentations and expectations
  3. Inadequate information with respect to expectations
  4. Distractions/high stimulation in the environment
  5. Fatigue
  6. High stress/high demand situations, particularly with respect to "language/ auditory load"
  7. Lack of predictability
  8. Insufficient visual and organizational supports
  9. Unfamiliar situations/materials
  10. Discomfort with respect to sensory issues

Communication Differences

Due to their communication differences, people with autism may not comprehend what communication is about,i.e., an exchange process, thus affecting communicative reciprocity. Cognitive differences may interfere with the speed and variability of communication, creating disorganization. Therefore, speech and communication is often interpreted concretely and literally. For those with skills, content is often limited and compulsive.

Social aspects, too, may interfere with the communication process. Because social and communication aspects cannot be separated, it is often difficult to integrate the two when both aspects are impaired.

Sensory factors may also interfere with the communication process. Auditory processing may be inconsistent, causing auditory stimulation to be aversive. In addition, other senses may be distracting.

Effective communication for students with autism doesn't just happen. Since visual processing seems to be the strongest channel in most children with autism (Hodgdon, 1995) visual mediated communication includes anything which can be seen for supporting communication: body language, objects, pictures, graphical metaphors and written words. However, unless they are meaningful, they will not be valuable.

How to use assistive technology to address communication differences

When providing technical assistance in a classroom where a child with autism is placed, I use a five point model to assess his program for communication.

1. Begin with a communication system

My first question is, "What form of communication system is used by the child?"

The system hierarchy of form of communication is:

It is during the picture phase of the hierarchy that high tech asssistive technology can be used successfully. Schedules, work systems and communication boards can all be demonstrated on a dynamic display. Rather than a traditional display using MayerJohnson pictures, real photographs, realistic pictures, hot buttons, symbols, or written words can all be used in an action display. This means that these pictures may be backed by a sound, or, a pop- up menu may exposed when a picture is clicked upon. This satisfies the need for visual based communication but is backed by the audio as well as action on the screen. This is a highly individualized approach based on the needs of the student for structure and predictability.

Visual needs and preferences can be assessed by a software program called EvaluWare. Designed by Assistive Technology, Inc. it investigates the visual needs and preferences (level of representation, contrast, scenes, and target size).

2. Use visually- based approach for nonverbal children; backup for verbal children.

Even verbal students with autism lose newly acquired language skills when under stress. For instance, for a student who has difficulty initiating or maintaining conversation, a strategy known as cueing (automated word retrieval) can be used as a tool on the student's dynamic display. The types of prompts may include a pop- up picture, a pop- up text, an initial text prompt, an initial phonetic prompt (digitized speech), an initial text with phonetic prompt, a spoken prompt (entire word) or a text with a spoken prompt (entire word).

3. Teach meaningful concepts in meaningful contexts.

One way to do this is by use of a graphical metaphor. A graphical metaphor, coined by Dr. Howard C. Shane of Boston Children's Hospital, refers to a realistic scene containing any number of objects that an Interactant can use to communicate, learn and recreate. An example of this would be a picture of a bird in a tree in a park. The context is recreated as well as the content. Using an authoring tool, such as Companion, this can be achieved easily on a computer platform.

4. Use areas of interest and strength.

If the student is interested in Thomas the Tank Engine and obsesses on the character, a short clip of the video can be inserted into the computer based communication system as a reinforcer for completion of work

5. Change only one aspect at a time.

Looking at the four aspects of communication (form, function, context and content) only one aspect should be changed at a time to lend predictability and routine.

Behavior is communication! Listen to it! But give them the tools so we, the listener, can hear.


Hodgdon, L.A.(1998). Visual strategies for improving communication: Volume 1: Practical supports for school and home (6th ed.). Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Shane, H. C. (1999, September). A Picture Is Worth More Than 1000 Words, Utilizin the Graphical Metaphor. Presented at Region 11 ESC, Fort Worth, TX.

Twachtman- Cullen, D (1999, September). A Lesson Plan for the Miltenium: Bold New Ideas for a New .Century. Keynote speech at Texas State Autism Conference, Plano, TX.

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