The Importance of Screens

By Nancy J. McCann
Melissa Morgenlander ’94
Melissa Morgenlander ’94

Researcher, curriculum designer, and educational media consultant Melissa Morgenlander ’94 consults for a variety of educational television shows, app developers, afterschool programs, and start-ups. But near and dear to her heart is the use of technology to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Much of her work explores the links between autism, media, and learning technologies. She is currently working on an app that is a social-skills game for those who fall on the spectrum.

Her seven-year-old autistic son, Quentin, and his “neurotypical” twin sister, Fiona, are her driving forces. “Quentin is my muse, my inspiration. So is Fiona. As a researcher, it’s like I have my own little experiment running out of my house with a control group and an experimental group. That’s what it feels like when you have boy/girl twins and one of them has autism. Compare and contrast!”

At age four, Quentin was still nonverbal. After Morgenlander watched a television news program that explained how the iPad might help autistic children communicate, she decided to give the then-new technology a try. She introduced Quentin to an iPad outfitted with an augmentative and assisted communication (AAC) app that allowed him to communicate using pictures.

The visually oriented communication first started off-line, says Morgenlander: “At dinner, we would sit him down with a few pictures: pasta, juice, chicken, and corn. We had those foods set out for him, but his plate was empty. To train him, we got him to point to a picture of the food he wanted. When he did so, he received a little bit of that food to eat or drink.” (Hunger is a powerful motivator, she says.)

After introducing the iPad, they used a similar method, but instead of pointing to a picture, Quentin would press a button on the app, and it would display the written words underneath the image and say what he wanted. “So, if he wanted juice for example, he could press the picture for juice and it would ‘speak’ for him. As he advanced, he learned to press buttons that say, ‘I want juice, please.’ ”

Morgenlander notes that many people with autism or other communication issues carry their AAC devices everywhere they go—it becomes their “voice.” But within a year, Quentin was talking and no longer needed the app.

“I’m pretty sure that this first exposure to AAC—images with words underneath—helped him learn to read. That, and his love of corporate logos. He basically did not speak until he learned how to read, and these things helped him a lot.

“Like many children with autism, he is a visual learner,” says Morgenlander, and he instantly loved the iPad. “He innately understood how to use it. However, I don’t think this makes him unique among most children.”

Quentin still uses the device everyday. He likes to watch videos—over and over again—and Morgenlander is convinced there is something in the reiteration that helps him learn. It’s even better if the videos are closed-captioned, she says, since he has trouble comprehending what people are saying. “His brain isn’t computing it fast enough. But he does understand the written word. He’s also trying to learn what the words sound like. Closed- captioning has been an awesome tool for him.”

At this point, Morgenlander says, “I don’t know how we would get through life with Quentin without an iPad”—the device even helps to calm his tantrums. “It’s so important to us, to him.”

With the ever-increasing number of children being diagnosed with an ASD each year—1 in 68, according to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014—Morgenlander believes that touchscreen devices have great potential to “serve as a window for learning, a source of comfort, and a way to communicate.”