Researchers of a new study proved that autistic children who had severe verbal difficulties were able to use iPads to help develop their speech ability at a later age than previously thought possible.

The premise of the work stems from the fact that up to one-third of children with autism have a command over just a few words by the time they are old enough for school. Evidence also shows that children with autism who are unable to speak by the age of 5 or 6 have little chance of developing spoken language.

The iPad study shows that implementing effective communication tools could extend the time limit on improving verbal aptitude in these cases. Ann Kaiser, a researcher at Vanderbilt Peabody College, reported that children between the ages of 5 and 8 who used an iPad as a speech-generating device developed a greater number of spoken words when compared to kids who used other interventions.

“For some parents, it was the first time they’d been able to converse with their children,” Kaiser said in a press release. “With the onset of iPads, that kind of communication may become possible for greater numbers of children with autism and their families.”

The impact of the iPad in enabling older, nonverbal kids with autism to speak underscores the need for alternative communication systems. Connie Kasari, a researcher at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research & Treatment, said in a post on Autism Speaks’ website that these systems “can have a profound effect on children’s ability to communicate,” thus explaining the "explosion of the iPad and speech generating applications for children with autism.”

According to Kasari, the evidence showing how and to what degree these systems enhance spoken language of nonverbal autistic children has so far been “anecdotal or limited to single case designs.”

That is why Autism Speaks, a leading autism science and advocacy organization, funded The Characterizing Cognition in Nonverbal Individuals with Autism (CCNIA) intervention study that Kaiser and colleagues carried out by using the Apple devices.

People who have struggled to speak have used so-called augmentative and alternative communication devices for decades, Kaiser explained. These tools encourage people to use symbols, gestures, pictures, and speech output to ease communication. The iPad’s versatility enables it to mimic these devices, making these special methods of communication easily available and at a lower price. The user-friendliness of the iPad is also a welcome perk, especially when they are ubiquitous enough to avoid being a stigma.

Regularity is another key reason the iPad and other speech-generating devices are effective in enhancing language development. “When we say a word it sounds a little different every time, and words blend together and take on slightly different acoustic characteristics in different contexts,” Kaiser explained. “Every time the iPad says a word, it sounds exactly the same, which is important for children with autism, who generally need things to be as consistent as possible.”

Kaiser will now embark on another collaborative study that will implement iPads to compare the impact that two contrasting interventions will have on children who have autism and a minimal use of spoken language. The device will allow children to touch symbols, listen to word repetitions, and utter words.