How to ask for a cup of tea

Observations on education

Communication is innate for most of us. For some, however, help is required to convey messages that others express with ease. Educators and innovators are finding ways to provide this help using the latest information and communications technology.

At a school in Gloucestershire, special needs teachers are employing software to aid their students, many of whom have dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger's syndrome.

The teachers use multisensory products such as Texthelp and Wordshark to reinforce letters, sounds and spelling. One student writes best by typing out all her ideas first, without punctuation or capitalisation. Texthelp then reads back what she has written, allowing her to add the punctuation separately. She is thus able to compose an essay in a way that works best for her. Working with pen and paper would be more time consuming.

At TreeHouse School in London, which specialises in teaching children with autism, Dr Neil Martin and members of the behavioural analysis team use simple computer graphs to track progress. Throughout the day, teachers record each child's response to a different activity or lesson. At the end of the day, information is inputted and the data graphed to show how the child is doing. Currently the programme is used in two of the school's classes, but Martin plans to expand the programme by using pocket PCs to collect data.

Communication needs are also being served by new technology outside the classroom. Councillor Jonathan Bishop is developing a programme to help people with communication problems to understand others. People with, for example, Asperger's often interpret what others say literally. Telling someone with Asperger's, "I'd die for a cup of tea", is understood as "I would die for a cup of tea", not "I would like a cup of tea", Bishop explains.

Called the Portable Affect Recognition Learning Environment (Parle), Bishop's programme uses a mobile phone to interpret the facial expression and tone of whomever a person with a communication need is speaking to. By holding it up to someone's face, the mobile phone can scan the facial expression and take into account what is being said, then interpret this for the user. So "I would die for a cup of tea" comes out as "I would like a cup of tea". Bishop has tested a prototype and discovered that the users with Asperger's found this early version useful.

All of these uses of technology could lead to a more inclusive society. They also show that there are many people answering the call to improve communications for us all.