New communication tools for students with special needs


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was inspired by an webinar entitled Current and Emerging Technology for Individuals with Autism: Building Communication & Education Skills.

Getting the attention of students and helping them communicate is a continual goal of every teacher. This can be particularly challenging when working with students with special needs. But there is helpful current and new technology, highlighted in an webinar given in December 2015 by Howard C. Shane, Ph.D, of Harvard Medical School and director of the Autism Language Program in Boston Children’s Hospital, and Christian Karter, educational technology specialist at Monarch Center for Autism in Cleveland, Ohio.

Projection devices

Mini projector

Mini projector

Some classrooms have Smart Boards, and these are useful for large group activities and displaying information such as a daily classroom schedule, which helps students follow along and anticipate activities. But teachers may want to work with smaller groups or one-on-one, and there is a projector perfect for this too. Called a Mini Projecter or Pico Projector, it is hand-size, can connect to an iPad or Android device, and can play video and images from an SD card. Prices range from about $40 to $350, significantly cheaper than a Smart Board.


Tablets were discussed in the webinar, and it was noted that most of the big names in AAC (alternative augmentative communication) still make apps only for iPad. iPads can be used as Smart Boards, educational apps, visuals such as schedules and token boards, and for data collection, photography and video capturing.

Other tablets include Android devices and Windows Surface. It is expected that as time passes, more apps will become available for every device.

Wearable technology

Apple Watch

Apple Watch

Wearable technology is trending now. For students who don’t mind wearing them, teachers can use devices such as a Pebble Watch ($80 to $250) or Apple Watch ($250 to $700) for a variety of uses without disrupting the classroom, such as prompting a student to do a task or improve behavior. Prompts can be physical (vibration), visual (images or messages), or verbal/audio (from built-in speakers). Apple Watch, which offers more features, has sensors to monitor things such as heart rate, which help track data or let students know when they are getting upset. Apple Watches can also send images for “just-in-time” support for students, so they can see what they are supposed to do next.

Speech synthesis

Computer-generated speech has advanced greatly, and you can now personalize it to match your own voice. This can be useful for both teachers and students. Leading manufacturers are Acapela Group and ModelTalker.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

AI takes input from a person and converts it to text, then performs a keyword search and provides a related response. Popular AI devices include Siri for iOS, Google Now for Android devices, and Cortana for Windows 10. They can answer questions such as “What is the weather outside?”

AI can be used as therapy assistance in several ways. Studies show that AI often motivates students to enunciate more clearly to help the AI device understand their speech. AI also simulates human social interaction, which is helpful to some students. One mother wrote an article called “To Siri, with Love”, about how AI “befriended” her son with autism.

A new AI device called Amazon Echo, which looks like a speaker and costs about $180, does a good job of hearing voices. It can be placed anywhere and acts as a personal assistant. It can answer questions, turn lights on and off, play music, set alarms, tell time, and has an ever-growing list of functions.

Tips on selecting and getting stuff

  • and the AAC Evaluation Genie are good sources of information about apps and how they might be helpful.
  • Ask the manufacturer for a sample for evaluation purposes. After you send it back, you can then talk about how the device was used in your classroom when asking for grant funding.
  • Always use a trial version of an app before buying it.
  • When getting Medicaid to pay for a device, it’s important to say that it will be used “for communication purposes.”

For more information about this topic, including news about emerging technology, view the webinar here.


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