Kids with autism may be able to learn to speak later than previously thought and researchers say that iPads could be key.

Preliminary findings from a new study indicate that iPads can help children with autism as old as 8 acquire new language.

That’s significant because many on the spectrum lack significant speech even into their school years. It has long been thought that kids are unlikely to develop speech if they do not do so by ages 5 or 6.

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For the study, researchers at Vanderbilt University worked with 61 children with autism ages 5 to 8 who were minimally verbal using speech-generating apps on the iPad to communicate. In addition to touching symbols on the tablet in order to generate audible speech, the kids were encouraged to mimic the words themselves.

With the training, all of the kids in the study learned to speak new words and some started using short sentences, researchers said.

“For some parents, it was the first time they’d been able to converse with their children,” said Ann Kaiser of Vanderbilt who led the study.

Using iPads for the training is helpful for a number of reasons, Kaiser said. They are cost-effective and commonplace, meaning that there isn’t a stigma for those with autism who carry the devices.

Moreover, however, the consistent voice that speech-generating apps on the iPad deliver is a major plus.

“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,” said Kaiser.

Further results from the research are expected next year. In addition, Kaiser said she is embarking on a separate five-year study along with researchers at three other universities to further assess the best method to encourage speech in kids with autism using iPad technology.

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