A new and controversial technology in the treatment of autism is being heralded as a life-changing, life-improving device for both persons with autism and their families and caregivers. The technology itself is a small hand-held computer called a Palmtop. It is similar to a PalmPilot in that a stylus is used to input letters onto the screen; the Palmtop then generates a set of possible words for the user to choose from (for example, if the person typed “B-E-A”, the Palmtop presents the options of “Bear”, “Beauty”, “Beautiful” and “Beat”). The words selected are then “spoken” aloud by the small machine. This technology is being used to aid with a part of the experience of autism, a difficulty with verbal communication. The cost of this technology is around $5,000, according to several autism advocacy websites.
A recent CTV news story with the headline, “New device gives voice to children with autism,” presented the Palmtop as nothing short of miraculous. The grandmother of the boy featured in the story said that the Palmtop “literally gave him a voice,” and that it curbed his aggressive behavior. I do not doubt that the device has changed this boy’s experience in day-to-day living, or that the people that care about him are happy to hear him “speak” through the technology if he is unable to using his own voice. The intent of this piece is not at all to criticize the benefits the technology may offer. I wish to, instead, look at the way the device is presented to the public, and investigate what it is about this kind of technology that drives us to such a powerful response.
It is interesting to note that before this computerized technology was developed, persons with autism used another, more basic, communication tool that accomplished a very similar task. This tool is a sheet of paper with different symbols on it that the person could point to and use to communicate a message. These charts contain pictures of, for example, different types of foods (such as a loaf of bread, a glass of water and an apple). These Picture Exchange Communication Symbols (PECS), sometimes called “pic syms”, are part of a larger category of augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) systems. AAC systems are studied and developed by speech-language pathologists and other groups of professionals for use by people with temporary or permanent impairments in speech and communication. PECS vary in cost, but they tend to range from free to about $100. It is actually difficult to find information online about purchasing a simple paper version of the PECS, as most come on cd-roms with the capability for searching and range in price anywhere from $89.99 up to over $399.99. The digitization of the PECS seems to be the major trend.
Considering the substantial cost of the Palmtop computer, it is important to evaluate the differences between the old and new versions of the communication tool, by stripping down the technology and looking at what functions it performs. Both devices allow the person to communicate through symbols (the computer version uses the visual symbols of letters and then translates them to speech sounds, and the paper version uses picture symbols which are interpreted by both people involved in the communication process). One improvement that the new technology offers is its word prediction function. As described above, the computer generates several possibilities for the person to select based on the first letters put into the machine. This might be easier to use, but it also requires more input from the user. Using the Palmtop requires a greater understanding of language than using the picture-based symbol charts.
The most obvious difference here is the capability of the computer to mimic human speech sounds. Perhaps for people who have not heard their loved ones speak, this is a substantial difference. As members of a cognitive group of organisms, we hold the ability to verbally communicate in very high regard. It makes sense that the seemingly powerful act of speech being recreated by a piece of technology has a draw for those who are unable to communicate the way we are accustomed to.
I think it is this seemingly miraculous act of giving a voice to those who do not have one, rather than any assessment of the real differences in the day-to-day lives of people who use the Palmtop, that garnered the technology a place on a nationwide news broadcast. It seems as though the company who created the device is selling little more than hope. It is a hope that we can speak even if our physiological mechanisms should fail us. When we strip down the issue of the Palmtop technology, is the $5,000 price tag on the device worth it? The answer here must come from individuals and their families based on their experiences. Some would say that no price is too great for what the device offers; a response which gets my complete respect.
I think that it is more important for all of us to keep in mind the fact that technology is often trumped up as something worthy of being purchased simply because it is new and improved. New versions of the iPod, constantly upgraded computers, televisions, and even cars are all examples of this phenomenon. We crave the new — how many times have I heard someone say that they “just HAVE to get an iPhone”, and sometimes we do not stop to strip down the issue and look closely at what we are paying for. We are a culture of technological worshippers. The ability to create technologies that change the condition of our lives is almost as essential to our understanding of who we are as humans as our ability to communicate is. As consumers, it is in our best interest to be aware of the marketing tactics used by technological products. Beware of technology for the sake of technology.
CTV News Article, http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080401/autism_Avis_080401/20080401/
Autism Teaching Tools,
© 2008 Lauren Cheal; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.
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