Apps may open communication door for children, families affected by severe, non-verbal autism

May 22, 2013  


Oliver Wendt SPEAKall device

Oliver Wendt, a Purdue University assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, demonstrates how the SPEAK all! app allows the user to select images to create a sentence. A version of SPEAK all! is available as a free download through the iTunes store, and a premium version will be available to purchase this summer. (Purdue Research Foundation photo)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Stephen and Diane Beaudoin have tried for years to fully communicate with their son, David, 11, who is diagnosed with severe, non-verbal autism. The Beaudoins credit SPEAK all!, an iPad application, with the enriched communication they now have with their son. David has been using SPEAK all! for about one year.

"We've found that David is building real sentences that we weren't getting no matter how many times we mimicked the behavior we wanted from him," Stephen Beaudoin said. "SPEAK all! helped him complete more meaningful, interesting sentences, which led to more meaningful, interesting communication. He enjoys the interface, and this has helped him pick up SPEAK all! very quickly."

David is one of many children who may be helped by the app. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that as many as 1 in 50 children in the United States has some form of autism.

Developed at Purdue University, SPEAK all! helps children communicate by using photos and graphic symbols that represent what a child wishes to say and helps the child construct sentences. The app speaks the word or sentence, which allows a child to communicate a thought and reinforces the word to help the child learn to talk.

SPEAK all! resulted from research by Oliver Wendt, a Purdue assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, and was developed by Purdue's Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program, with support from the Purdue Innovation and Commercialization Center.

"There are varying degrees of autism severity and the most severe degree is the non-verbal where the child or young adult does not have natural speech to meet their daily communication needs," Wendt said. "Most children with severe autism learn to communicate by using a simple communication book where they pull pictures of what they want, such as a picture of an apple, and then they exchange the photo for what they want."

Following nearly 20 years of research on using low-technology communication books and picture cards, Wendt and his team embraced using an iPad's interface for the same process, but in a simpler, less cumbersome way.

child using SPEAK all device

A child affected by severe, non-verbal autism uses the SPEAK all! app to communicate with a student in Purdue's speech, language and hearing sciences department. (Purdue Research Foundation photo) 
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The app allows the child to choose several images to form a sentence such as "I want a big pretzel." The app can be customized for the child's interests, and the recording within the program can use the parent's or primary caregiver's voice.

Ryan Schneider and Dorsey Armstrong, both associate professors in Purdue's Department of English, have used the SPEAK all! app with their daughter, Mallory, 7.

"Mallory has been using SPEAK all! for a few months, and before it was such a struggle for her to explain to us her needs and wants," Armstrong said. "We've seen a marked improvement in Mallory – she enjoys using the iPad and her frustration level has dropped dramatically."

Jeff and Sally Wallace use the app with their son, Ian, 15.

"For most people a child with autism comes into their lives and suddenly they are faced with all these different challenges," Jeff Wallace said. "SPEAK all! is a straightforward approach to teaching communication to children."

Children using the app also have experienced a physiological change in their neurological connections.

"As part of our program, we do research on the neurophysiological effects of interventions like SPEAK all!," Wendt said. "We've found through neuroimaging that the brain activity moves to a more normal level during SPEAK all! intervention."

A version of SPEAK all! is available as a free download through the iTunes store and a premium version will be released summer of 2013 for a nominal fee. Under development is a progressive version called SPEAK more!, which is designed for children who have advanced beyond using simple sentence structures.

Wendt's research is sponsored by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a statewide project involving Purdue, Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame, and is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Organization for Autism Research, and the Purdue University Center for Families.

SPEAK all! and SPEAK more! are patented through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization. For more information about developing and commercializing this innovation, contact the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization at 765-588-3470, otcpatent@prf.org.

A video about the SPEAK all! app can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPy2NSYtj7U

About Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization

The Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization operates one of the most comprehensive technology-transfer programs among leading research universities in the United States. Services provided by this office support the economic development initiatives of Purdue University and benefit the university's academic activities. 

Writer: Cynthia Sequin, 765-588-3340, casequin@prf.org 

Source: Oliver Wendt, 765-494-2462, olli@purdue.edu

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