Ronald Leaf, director of Autism Partnership, a private California-based agency, says he prefers to help autistic children such as JW learn how to navigate their world without gadgets. "If we could get children to talk without using technology, that would be our preference," he says.("iPhone applications can help the autistic" - USA Today, May 28, 2009)
Dear Dr. Leaf,
I was saddened and disappointed to read your comment in the USA Today article about the Proloquo2Go application for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. I felt it was a glib dismissal of a technology and a communications philosophy that has helped and will continue to help thousands of young people who are unable to speak but deserve to be heard.
I am the author of Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter, a memoir that tells the story of raising a little girl with a rare brain malformation that leaves her unable to speak. The book ends, and her future begins, when she is given an augmentative alternative communication device that helps to facilitate her speech. Four years later, because of this technology (in her case, a Vantage Lite, produced by the Prentke Romich Company), Schuyler spends the better part of her day in a mainstream third grade class alongside her neurotypical classmates. She recently passed the modified TAKS test (the No Child Left Behind component for the state of Texas) and is on track to continue her schooling and even graduate from high school. Where four years ago, she was pushed off to a special education Life Skills class and was given no prognosis for an independent life, Schuyler may very well get a chance to live whatever life she chooses. None of these possibilities were placed on the table until she had the ability to speak and to learn how to construct language. All of this, because AAC technology gave her a chance.
Schuyler is hardly alone in her achievements. Her story is only unusual in that she was ultimately able to receive the speech device that could help her. She and her fellow AAC users represent only a fraction of those nonverbal kids who stand to benefit from this technology. AAC helps thousands of kids and adults find a voice and overcome a wide range of disabilities, from Schuyler and her polymicrogyria to kids with cerebral palsy or, yes, autism. As you are no doubt painfully aware, the frustration of being unable to speak can be as crippling to a child as any physical or mental infirmity. I have seen it time and time again, children who were not just nonverbal, but closed up inside an internal world of their own, unable to make the basic human contacts that they needed so desperately. All because they had to struggle simply to make their most basic needs known.
Kids who use AAC technology gain more than words on a "gadget". (In all fairness, that was a word used by USA Today, not yourself.) They find a door into a larger world, a door once locked but now ajar and ready to be kicked open. Those of us who have watched AAC technology at work have found that when these kids are suddenly able to speak through the use of electronic assistance, they show dramatic improvement in other areas of communication such as sign language and even verbal speech. This effect is of particular interest, and promise, to children on the autism spectrum.
"If we could get children to talk without using technology, that would be our preference." As the parent of a child who can't speak but who has a world of things to say, I must confess that I'm baffled by that remark. If you are saying that you'd rather see these kids use their natural voices than a computerized voice, then of course I agree. But what if the path to finding that natural voice involved technology, as is so often the case? Would you dismiss that technology so casually if there was even a chance it could help?
There's more than just a chance.
Dr. Leaf, you were quoted by USA Today because you were perceived as an expert in your field. I sincerely hope that you will take this opportunity to educate yourself about AAC technology. The next time you are called upon for answers and for wisdom, you might just change someone's life, and give them a voice.
Update: Dr. Leaf's response...