Kim Arlington April 02, 2012
Great communicator ... Johnny Mavrothalassitis, 8, can now talk with his family thanks to an iPad application designed to help children with autism improve their speech. Photo: Steven Siewert
John Mavrothalassitis used to communicate using pictures and one or two words. But over the past 18 months, the seven-year-old, who has autism, has started speaking in sentences with the help of an iPad application.
His family said he requested or commented on things they didn't realise he understood. This year he moved from a school for autistic students to a satellite class in a mainstream school.
His mother, Yvette, said he was ''infinitely happier. He no longer gets frustrated and upset by not being able to communicate with us and every day his speech is progressing''.
John uses the Proloquo2go app, which turns pictures into sentences then voices them out loud so they can be repeated.
''He tends to sometimes say things with an American accent,'' Ms Mavrothalassitis said. ''But I don't care how he talks, as long as he's talking.''
Today marks World Autism Awareness Day, as research suggests one in 100 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
The children's charity Variety, which supplied John's iPad, is fielding more and more requests for help from families with autistic children. Appeals for iPads with specialised software have more than doubled since last year and Variety can grant only half the requests.
With a surge in anecdotal evidence about the benefits of apps for children with an autism spectrum disorder, Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) is researching their use as educational and therapeutic aids with students at some of the eight schools it runs.
''Most children with autism are visual learners,'' Aspect's general manager for education development and research, Debra Costley, said. ''We feel that there is great potential in the use of the iPad to help children [achieve educational goals]. Children across the whole spectrum, whatever their level of ability, can interact with it in some way.''
The research is investigating how five apps - Proloquo2go, Stories2Learn, Choiceworks, My Feelings Book and Strip Designer - might support children's communication, learning and social skills and help them manage their emotions and behaviour.
''If they can get their emotions and anxieties regulated, they're less likely to have behaviours that are of concern in the classroom,'' Dr Costley said.
''That's really positive when we're trying to prepare them for mainstream settings.''
The chief executive of Autism Awareness, Nicole Rogerson, said there were good apps on the market that helped children with autism.
She said while the iPad ''will never replace the role of a really good-quality early intervention'', it is ''a great teaching tool for children who can afford it''.