Purdue students develop app to help children with severe autism

March 28, 2012

Doctoral student Ming Hsu works with Quentin Travers, 12, in the Purdue University Speech-Language Clinic. Quentin uses the iPad SPEAKall! app to ask for the items on the plate. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Students in a Purdue University service-learning program have developed an application for Apple's iPad that helps children with severe autism learn how to communicate.

The app, called SPEAKall!, allows the children to construct sentences by choosing photos and graphic symbols. The app speaks the sentence, which allows a child to communicate a thought and also helps the child learn to talk.

Launched in November on iTunes, the free app has been downloaded almost 3,300 times.

With the app, a child could take an iPad into a fast-food restaurant, construct a sentence saying "I want a cheeseburger," then play it for the order-taker. Hearing how the sentence sounds also can help the child develop his or her own speech and language skills.

"Fifty percent of children with severe autism are non-verbal, meaning they don't develop speech or language skills needed to communicate," said Oliver Wendt, an assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences who worked with the students developing the app and is testing it. "One strategy to get the children started with functional communication is a low-technology approach where they learn to pick up a graphic symbol card and exchange it for a desired item. The last couple of years, we have been looking at how to move children on to more sophisticated solutions, such as speech-generating devices that facilitate natural speech and language development."

That's where the SPEAKall! app comes in.

"One cool thing is that you can record a voice and add whatever pictures you want," said Nick Schuetz, a senior in electrical and computer engineering from Loogootee, Ind., who led the EPICS service learning student group. "The child could combine his mother's voice and his father's picture to say 'I want dad home.' "

Wendt said the best results are often seen with children 9-12 years old. Younger children can learn to use the app, but problem behaviors or sensory issues may interfere. "With the older children, these issues are more under control, and the brain is still developing and has capacity to learn."

The app has been effective in improving practical, everyday communication in tests with children with autism through Greater Lafayette Area Special Services (GLASS), which serves children with special needs in the Lafayette, West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County, Ind., school corporations.

Tracy Holdman, a special education teacher in the West Lafayette School Corp., has two students who use the app on classroom iPads.

"As a teacher, I'm always looking for a means of communication for my students. A large percentage of students I have taught over the last 13 years have unintelligible speech, a communication disorder or are non-verbal," Holdman said. "SPEAKall! not only gives the students a voice, but allows them to communicate their wants and needs. This helps them become more independent.

"Because we are now seeing iPads everywhere we go, students with disabilities can blend into the community in a more socially acceptable manner." 

Mary Ann Harrison's 12-year-old grandson is one of the students Wendt is working with on the app. Each week he has therapy on SPEAKall! in the Purdue Speech-Language Clinic, in his Tippecanoe School Corp. middle school classroom and at home.

"He's certainly getting it," Harrison said. She said he recently learned to use the "I want" icon on the app to form sentences.

"I'm really excited about the possibilities," she said.

Student clinicians in Purdue's speech-language pathology program have tested the app on children with Down syndrome. Because they have fine motor control difficulties, the app was tweaked to ease use of the drag and drop feature for constructing sentences.

Children with Down syndrome also can have more severe speech and language difficulties, although it's often just a problem of delayed development, Wendt said.

"In autism, speech and language are much more severely disordered and often completely absent. They frequently don't understand the function of communication in general," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says autism affects as many as 1 in every 88 children in the United States.

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 funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The Purdue students were working through EPICS, a service-learning program through which students work with local partners for community improvement.

Schuetz said about 15 students worked on the app over two years. They came from a variety of disciplines, including computer science; electrical and computer engineering; management; industrial design; and speech, language and hearing sciences.

EPICS creates teams of undergraduates who earn academic credit for multiyear, multidisciplinary projects that solve engineering- and technology-based problems for community service and educational organizations. The program, founded at Purdue in 1995, is now in colleges and high schools throughout the United States and globally.

Writers: Judith Barra Austin, 765-494-2432, jbaustin@purdue.edu
               Emil Venere, 765-494-4709, venere@purdue.edu

Sources:  Oliver Wendt, 765-494-2462, olli@purdue.edu
                  Nick Schuetz, nschuetz@purdue.edu
                  Carla Zoltowski, EPICS education administrator, 765-494-3559, cbz@purdue.edu
                  Tracy Holdman, holdmant@wl.k12.in.us
                  Mary Ann Harrison, mah104@comcast.net


Note to Journalists: Broadcast-quality video of autistic children using the iPad app is available for download and use at ftp://news69.uns.purdue.edu/Public/iPadAutism/  For more information, contact Jim Schenke, Purdue News Service, 765-237-7296, jschenke@purdue.edu. April is National Autism Awareness Month. Monday (April 2) is World Autism Awareness Day.