For those of you who aren’t aware, The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest online news site and also its highest circulation newspaper, is running a series of articles at the moment under the heading The Autism Project. To be honest, I haven’t been following it religiously. At the risk of sounding like Sarah Palin, my expectations of what the mainstream media could accomplish in terms of reporting about autism in Canada was fairly low. Gingerheaddad and I read one article over the weekend and both agreed that it sounded like an advertisement for Autism Speaks.
If you look at the articles posted so far you’ll find references to:
- a “public health crisis”
- The 1 in 88 figure from the CDC, a U.S. metric used because there are no reliable numbers available for autism prevalence rates in Ontario.
- genetic research, scientists, therapists, teachers, parents of autistic children…
- There’s an article about Streetsville Secondary School but only one pupil is quoted – the rest of the story focuses on the teachers. Oh, and mentions that kids can watch The Big Bang Theory at lunchtime if they choose.
I haven’t seen anything yet from adults on the spectrum – maybe it’s coming…?
Estee Klar mentioned on Facebook an article about iPads and autism that had been published as part of this project, so I decided to read that one in detail. The piece refers to the ground-breaking study at the Beverley School conducted by Rhonda McEwen of the University of Toronto – an attempt to collate data around how effective iDevices are in improving the communication of autistic children. Separately, Carisa Kluver of Digital Storytime mentioned that she and Lorraine Akemann of MomsWithApps are writing a blog post together about children and screen time and that they have a survey they are trying to get parents and others to complete.
In considering my responses to that survey and after mentally digesting the contents of The Star article, I found myself with thoughts to share, so here they are:
Adults need iDevices too
The Star article is admittedly about the Beverley School project, so it focuses on the children that are part of the study, but I would have loved to have seen coverage that was more ambitious in scope. Adults on the spectrum are using iDevices, not just for communication purposes but to provide visual supports for life skills and also to help manage anxiety and mood fluctuations. Access to these devices is enabling individuals to succeed in higher education and the workforce in ways that might not have been possible previously.
iDevice communication myths
If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m a huge proponent of iDevices, having seen the benefits of them with my sons (who are both on the spectrum). However, The Star article does nothing to contradict certain ideas about iPads and autism that I find unhelpful:
- The iPad is a magic bullet for non-verbal children on the spectrum! Actually, an iDevice is not the only way for a non-verbal person to communicate and AAC (assistive augmentative communication) is not just for non-verbal people. Those adults on the spectrum who are verbal will often comment on the fact that when they are under stress, the first thing that falters is their speech. I’ve seen with Oliver, who is echolalic, that his ability to recall functional words and phrases improves (and his frustration and stress decreases) if he is provided with visual supports.
- Let’s give all these kids iDevices! To quote Gingerheaddad – a tablet without apps is about as useful as a toaster that isn’t plugged in. (I think I need to stop mentioning him or people will start to talk.) We need to train Speech and Language Pathologists and make their services available so they can assess our kids and make recommendations regarding which apps are best suited to them. We need to think of ways that would enable parents to try special needs apps before buying them – some of these apps can cost as much as $200. The Beverley School study used Proloquo2Go which is the AAC app that is always suggested first, but AAC is not one size fits all and P2G is not the best app for everyone.
It’s not just autism
There are so many families who are under-resourced and under-supported in our community and guess what, some of them don’t even have autistic children. The Star’s series of articles is called The Autism Project, I get that – but would it kill journalists to mention all the other special needs children who need support with respect to the challenges they face, but aren’t getting them at all because they’re not on the spectrum? Yes, the wait list for autism diagnosis and services in Ontario is appalling. But what if you don’t even qualify to get on a wait list – what then?
The isolation canard
The Star article mentions Bridget Taylor who Estee has heard of but I confess, I haven’t. Ms. Taylor is quoted as follows:
” Kids are drawn to technology and…there could potentially be a reliance on it that’s not so beneficial in the long run…The next step in terms of the evolution of these apps is to promote interaction.”
In conjunction with Carisa’s request to complete the survey on screen time, this got me thinking about certain ideas that in my experience are pervasive and need some challenging:
- time with a tablet has to be included in screen time. It’s the same as watching television, playing video games, being on the PC, etc.
- giving an autistic child a tablet increases their isolation from others.
- that success for an autistic person is best measured by quantifying how ‘normal’ they have become.
We don’t have video games or a television (in theory we have one so we can watch dvds but we never use it) and the boys don’t use a computer at home. These outcomes didn’t come about due to ideology however – I can’t afford cable, the boys aren’t into games and they think my laptop is useless because it doesn’t have a touch screen. They actually have a touch of pity in their eyes when they tap on the screen and look at me, disappointed.
In a world where schoolwork is increasingly completed on a computer and homework has to be done the same way, how exactly are we supposed to keep screen-time to only 1 or 2 hours a day? Even more importantly, why?
My children are generally more engaged with others as a result of their tablet use. They rely on their iDevices for fun and relaxation yes, but also for life skills support. Owen learns concepts and skills on his iPad that he has difficulty learning off screen and we generalize those skills into ‘real life’. Oliver is more interactive when he is singing or reading things on his iPad than he is when he plays alone with trains – so, why would I want to stop that? But, and it’s a big but, If my kids want to read a book or watch an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and want to do it alone because they need some downtime, why is that a bad thing?
I have the same goal as most parents have for their children. I want them to be happy, healthy and feel confident and empowered. If the boys’ iPads improve their mood, communication levels and help them feel more relaxed and confident then why am I being made to feel bad about giving them access to their iPads as much as they want at home? As someone who favours data over anecdote however, where’s the data supporting the suggestion that tablet usage makes autistic children more isolated?