Encouraging children to take on any form of technology can be tricky for so many reasons. A quick search for computers for kids brings up hundreds, thousands of choices which compete for our attention. Each has a seemingly impressive list of specs and multiple capabilities, from an adult perspective. Usually, we manage to decide on one (whether it be for gaming, learning, communication or all) but the excitement of tearing away the polythene wrapping and dislodging it from its polystyrene cocoon quickly turns into a reality that now, you’re on your own and it’s up to the child to use it or not.
If it’s engaging you’re onto a winner. The device begins to mesh into everyday life, across home, school, grandma’s house and other and the excitement snowballs until everyone that needs to, can recognise its value. If it’s boring and too difficult to learn to use then it is destined for the cupboard; occasionally to be brought out to humour the well-intentioned speech therapist who is recognised to be working with what they have.
Within the field of technology design, participatory methods are increasingly being called upon to embed the values, needs and preferences of users at early stages of the design process, moving towards technologies that are closer aligned to what users want from their systems. It’s great to see more and more design research involving children with neurodiversity. Some key studies that have developed methods and frameworks for engaging children who have diverse needs can be found here, here and here. Whilst utilising therapeutic strategies and prompting us to consider total environmental factors, there is still a need to look at use cases, particularly for what is potentially the ‘hardest to reach’ who have severe speech and physical difficulties as well as additional needs.
Well-established augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) frameworks have provided both the foundations and pillars to my clinical work over the years (see Janice Light’s definitions of communicative competence) but it is only now that I’m starting to question where the child and their choices fit into this. By choices, I mean authentic views and engagement that goes beyond the limitations that we, with adult eyes, impose on children.
Perhaps not all children want to use words and language to express themselves? Perhaps the learning and communication environments we provide are only pushing our adult agendas? Perhaps we need to stop and reflect on what children are telling us when they let out an audible sigh as we once again dust off their communication aids that lurk in cupboards?