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Victoria University researchers are investigating whether iPads - or other electronic devices capable of converting words or pictures to speech - can be used to help autistic children communicate.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain, with one in every 150 children afflicted. Most of them have difficulty communicating and about half fail to develop speech at all.
Professor Jeff Sigafoos, of Victoria University, and Dr Dean Sutherland, of Canterbury University, have been given $885,000 in taxpayer funding over the next three years to identify the best communication tools for those without speech.
Prof Sigafoos and Dr Sutherland will study 40 children aged between four and seven and hope to find enough families willing to take part in the project in Wellington and Christchurch, where the two researchers are based.
They will test responses to the three most common alternatives to speech for autistic children: electronic speech-generating devices, which include an iPad or iPod Touch with special applications installed and a range of text-to-speech machines; sign language; and pointing to or exchanging pictures.
Prof Sigafoos says the research has exciting potential to reduce some of the behavioural problems associated with autism.
"Evidence has been accumulating since the 1970s that autistic children who fail to develop speech are more likely to experience things like aggression, extreme tantrums and self-harming behaviours," he said. "Frustration at being unable to communicate is regarded a prime cause."
Children under the age of seven were being selected because "early intervention will help prevent behaviour problems later".
In the United States, where the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has said more than two million people have a severe communication disorder, traditional "augmentative and alternative communication" devices such as that used by British physicist Stephen Hawking have cost more than $US7000 ($NZ9344).
But recently, communication software has been released to run on small, inexpensive portable touchscreen computers - the iPod touch, iPhone and the iPad - has made it possible to have a powerful speech generator for a fraction of that.
"For the first time, there will be objective data about how autistic children respond to each of the communication tools," said Prof Sigafoos, who said the study of children at home and in pre-school or school would help improve the development of communication skills some autistic children.
"By identifying and using their preferred tools and techniques, we may be able to help autistic children become better all round communicators," he said.
"Ideally we would like to teach all children with autism to speak, but the reality is that a significant proportion will never achieve that".
Prof Sigafoos is also an adjunct professor at James Madison University in Virginia and has extensively researched interventions for individuals with developmental and physical disabilities.
In the US, electronic technology for communication is also being quickly adopted by other people with conditions that impair the ability to speak, including aphasia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, traumatic brain injuries and cerebral palsy.