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Speak easy

Smartphone and tablet apps are helping autistic children communicate and express themselves better without going for expensive therapy and counselling sessions. Jaya Shroff Bhalla writes.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 05, 2013 22:10 IST
Jaya Shroff Bhalla

Rathin Ghosh's parents first noticed something was different about him when he was about two and half years old. He didn't respond to his name. No matter who called out to him, he looked confused or indifferent.

"We initially ignored his lack of response as a lot of people in the family told us that boys were slower learners than girls. But when my friends discussed their children's growth milestones, I started feeling something was wrong," said Jatin Ghosh, 34, a Gurgaon-based IT professional.

"Whenever we pointed out something, he looked dazed, as if he did not understand. The paediatrician asked us to show him to a autism specialist, who immediately put him on therapies," said Ghosh.

Rathin's mom Shristi, who was also an IT professional, quit her job help her son cope with autism.

"She would have to take him for therapies almost every alternate day. We knew we had to do it for Rathin but the whole process was very time-consuming and costly," said Ghosh.

It was about then that a friend introduced the Ghoshs to the iPad app for children with autism.

"Since Rathin was non-verbal, his only ways of communicating were by getting angry, screaming and crying. But ever since we introduced him to the touch screen gadget; he could communicate simply by touching the screen. There was a response, which he identified with. He started to point at images and communicate," he said.

"The iPad app offers several online applications to explore, where Rathin learnt his first words, ABCs, numbers to name a few things," said Shrishti.

"Now Rathin has started communicating slowly. He no longer needed to scream and express his unhappiness, he would point to what he liked or wanted and we knew and could help him."

"In the past few years, certain iPad apps have really helped kids in facilitating communication. These apps have helped parents and therapists both in helping the child build his language skills. All of us have started using it in our therapy. Most parents have also independently started using these visual and child friendly applications at home," said Dr Deepak Gupta, child psychiatrist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, with a special focus on autism.

On an average, Dr Gupta gets at least 5-8 cases a week.

Late last year, Australian researchers have also worked on the tablet technology to develop an application which can provide them at-home therapy.

"Usually these autistic children need several hundred hours of therapy before they actually start communicating. This application, the basic version is free and the superior one with more exercises is available for US$100. The app helps bridge the gap between the shortage of therapists and need for therapy," said Svetha Venkatesh professor and head at Deakin University's Pattern Recognition and Data Analytics research centre, who led the team that developed the TOBY app.

Venkatesh however feels that the app works best when a child is initiated into it, as early as two years and latest at three years.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in 90 children worldwide suffers with autism.

"The application is not a replacement for one-on-therapy but a proven programme, with over 1200 subscribers from across the world. Parents can easily use it with their children at home. Since it is interactive in nature, it not only beeps and helps a child correct his error but also maintains all database of a child's learning trend," she explained.

The TOBY play pad delivers easy-to-grasp lessons at home using a lot of multimedia content. Researchers say that the application monitors the child's learning curves at such an unprecedented level, that the app is able to chart out lessons according to the child's need and performance.

"It delivers detailed reports for review by parents and therapists. A lot of therapists in Australia have received it very well. Therapists say, the application actually enhances the child's learning many folds," said Venkatesh, who has also tied up with NGO Tamanna in Delhi, which runs a school for children with autism.

Created by Amsterdam-based David Niemeijer for children with communication problems, another popular app is Proloquo2Go.

Therapists say, it is the first real communication application, first released for iPhones in 2009, which was later adapted by iPad. The app has come to the rescue of thousands of children.

A survey by Neimeijer's company AssistiveWare showed that 90% of augmentative and alternative communication users needed an iPad for communication and more than 25% use an iPhone or iPod Touch.

About 50% children who used it reported improved speech abilities.