Motivate Students with Autism Using Electronic Devices

By Dr. Deborah Cutter

A child who is unable to communicate verbally can now find their voice with an easy to use device called a Voice Output Communication Aide. The ability to communicate is something most of us take for granted. When a child has difficulty communicating, their self-esteem, ability to understand concepts, and socialization skills are directly affected.

Tape recorders and Voice Output Communication Aides (VOCA), are battery operated units that fall into the category of Mid - technology. Autistic children are motivated by these tools which have been used successfully to enhance communication, comprehension and social skills. Improvement in comprehension impacts organization skills, capacity to follow directions and ability for independent self-care. Children who fall within the Autistic disorder spectrum commonly present with a wide variety of expressive communication problems ranging from preverbal to verbal difficulties resulting in social problems with peers. A VOCA is an electronic device which can be used easily to help a child overcome communication challenges and improve relationships with classmates.

The child communicates by pushing a button which activates pre-recorded messages tailored specifically for each child. In essence, a VOCA speaks for the child. The touch pads on these units contain visual representations in words, line drawings, or photographs that represent the contents of each recording. For example, a picture of two people with their arms around each other would represent the child’s desire to be hugged. When pressed, the recorded message would say, “Hug Me." These devices are very appealing to children and can help focus attention and increase classroom participation.

Here are some things to consider prior to recording the messages:

  1. The person who records the voice should not be someone the child/user knows. The device can only represent the user’s voice if the recorded voice is a neutral party.
  2. The user must have access to the device at all times.
  3. When teaching the child how to use the device, do so in the context of a naturally occurring and meaningful activity to avoid confusion.
  4. It is important that no one, other than the user, push the buttons to make it speak. It is very confusing for a child to hear their voice output device say something that they didn't intend. If someone needs to test the device, it should be taken outside of the room.
  5. If the child is interested in one particular message and keeps activating it over and over, do not take the device away simply because it is annoying. It would be similar to taping a child’s mouth shut because they kept repeating the same word again and again. Instead, think of these situations as teachable moments and explain to the child why their behavior is inappropriate and redirect their attention to something else.
  6. It is natural for peers and siblings to be curious about the device. Allow them some time to touch it and play with it at home or at school but make sure that the user is out of the room when this occurs. After this activity, the children need to be told that they are never again allowed to push a button to make the device speak unless they are helping the user which would encourage peer support.

In part 3 of Assistive Technology we’ll look at the benefits of using High-tech tools such as video taping and computers to improve comprehension, social skills and self-control.

Assistive Technology for Children with Autism by Susan Stokes under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Retrieved July 14, 2008 from Strategies for Using Voice Output Communication Devices with Children Who are Deaf or Blind by Maurice Belote. Retrieved July 20, 2008 from