'App'lying Technology for Special Needs
For the average teen, WhatsApp is just one of the ways of communication. But for 15-year old Suhail*, it is the only way. After many years of difficulty in face-to-face communication, he can finally talk to his friends at school and his relatives without fear, much to the happiness of his mother Latha. “Technology has opened up so many avenues for children with special needs and their parents, in ways we never imagined,” she says.
Although smartphone addiction is a bane for many parents, for children like Suhail with special needs, technology has enabled them to communicate, write messages to their parents, play games and learn new concepts, even if they are unable to open up to human contact.
“Mobile apps have helped my son in multiple ways. He maintains an online journal which he sends to his teachers, he uses Ola and Uber for travel and I am able to track his ride without worrying about cash payment. He likes to shop but is not comfortable talking to a shopkeeper, so he now selects things that he wants on Flipkart and Big Basket,” she says.
While these apps may be routine for others, for Suhail it has opened up his life to simple activities that have made his parents more confident. “Technology can be very empowering. Parents and guardians may or not be able to support these children always, but now they have found a way of not being dependant on anyone for small things,” says Srinivasan Anand, a trainer for children with special needs.
The availability of messenger services, games, music and word processing tools, are on a single device has made life easier. “Basic apps like ‘Tap to Talk’ make it very easy for these children to express emotions. When a mother wants to ask him how he feels, the child is able to express his mood without getting confused, using one of the 10-odd emotions in the app — sad, happy, irritated and so on,” says Vimala, a mother of a child with autism.
Another benefit, she adds, is how technology helps to make the daily schedule systematic, which is important for children who are dependent on a routine. “Many children with autism want to be instructed the same way every day. As parents, we sometimes change our words or delay the instructions and this confuses them. For them, apps help them go about their routine,” says Vimala.
Games too can be a great way to learn and stay engaged, Srinivasan adds, especially for those kids who get distracted easily. “They improve their reflexes. The rules change in every level, this improves their adaptability.”
But he also adds that mobile phones and tabs should not be used as an escape route to keep the child occupied while you complete other work. “Monitoring is necessary. Time should be allotted and followed, it should be put into a schedule,” he says. “Compared to a black board and a white chalk, there is a lot more scope with colour coding and graphics. But it should never be a substitute for teaching,” says Harini Mohan, special educator at Madras Dyslexia Association.
She adds that children’s usage should be constantly monitored, and adapted according to the needs of each child. But pitfalls aside, the positives of technology seems to have struck a chord with parents, children and special educators alike. “Nothing can be perfect. But for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives,” says Latha.
Far REACHING SOLUTIONS
The word technology conjures up a word with high-end apps and expensive tabs, but the solutions can often be surprisingly simple. “With spell-check, colours and calculators, tools like MS Paint or Word are very useful for children with dyslexia and dyscalculia,” says Srinivasan Anand, a trainer. “With 10-15% of school kids having learning disability, solutions must not be relegated as city-centric; we need to spread this to rural areas too,” says Harini Mohan, a special educator.