Can the new iPad take therapy apps to the next level?

by Tripp Underwood on March 17, 2011

Photo: flickr/ smemon87

If you’ve spent time in front of a TV or computer lately, you probably already know that Apple just released the latest version of the iPad, a faster and more portable edition of the already popular tablet. As the mobile technology revolution gathers speed, many medical professionals are trying to incorporate these devices into their practices, but few have been as successful as clinicians using it in their work with patients whose abilities to communicate has been hindered by a medical condition. Howard Shane, PhD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Communication Enhancement (CCE) is the owner of two new iPads, and an advocate for their use in clinical settings.

“Technology plays a big role in enriching the lives of many people with communication disorders, not just children on the autism spectrum, but people with motor impairments like cerebral palsy or people who are deaf or hard of hearing as well,” Shane says. “These new devices are giving many people communication options that weren’t available a few years ago.”

Howard Shane, PhD

Howard Shane, PhD

Shane’s research has shown that children with autism are often drawn to electronic screen media, and over the years he’s tried to capitalize on that natural interest by developing and using technology in his treatments. But as iPad and iPhone apps get easier to create and become more popular with the general public—a phenomenon Shane refers to as the “democratization” of technology—he and his colleagues are taking on new roles. The faculty and staff of the CCE are no longer just the providers of clinical care, they now need to be experts on the latest technology and how it can help children with communication disorders as well.

“The whole clinical model of how parents are exposed to the technology that can help their child with special needs is changing,” Shane says. “In the past, patient families would come to us for the latest equipment and software. Now they’re showing up with an iPad in hand asking, ‘What’s the best way to use this for our kids?’”

To help parents of kids with communication disorders better navigate the sea of tools now available to them, Jessica Gossnell, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist at the CCE, is evaluating hundreds of applications for their clinical merit as communication tools and then deciding which population would benefit most from their use. It’s a daunting but important job, especially as more companies are touting their products’ therapeutic value without the data to back up their claims. To maximize mobile technology use within the hospital, John Costello, MA, CCC-SLP, director of the Augmentative Communication Program at the CCE, is finding new ways to use the iPad in Children’s intensive care unit and other inpatient floors.

With guidance from a clinician, many mobile technology devices can be useful tools for kids with communication disorders

“The wave of new technology is great, but we can’t get caught up in the hype,” says Shane. “The clinical judgment about which apps are used and how they’re introduced is the most important thing. We need to continually make decisions based on what’s best for the child, not what’s being touted as the ‘next big thing.’”

Keeping with that theme, Children’s Autism Language Program is hard at work creating new applications that not only use the latest research, but are also engaging for young users. One such project is Symbol Talk, an application for the iPad or iPod touch that utilizes the devices’ portability and touch screens, making them more interactive and easier to use on the go. The app will contain next-generation features like voice recognition and specifically designed algorithms that will help children make choices. “The second wave of technology is coming,” says Shane. “And it’s going to change things substantially.”

But even as more science and research-based apps become available for kids with communication disorders, Shane says it’s perfectly OK for kids to use the devices for their original purpose: fun. In fact, there are several games and programs designed for entertainment that have proven valuable in a clinical setting. Shane has seen children who were reluctant to speak sing loudly with some music apps, and watched children on the autism spectrum better understand concepts like keeping a routine, or develop strategies for communicating, just by typing out commands for a virtual pet that lives on their iPad.

“For entertainment or rewards purposes the iPad and other portable media devices can be great for kids with communication disorders,” he says. “But if you want to use it for clinical purposes, it’s important you check with an experienced practitioner on how to best do that.”

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