After much collaboration, severe non-verbal autistic children now have a way to use tablet technology to learn basic communication skills.

The iPad application, “SPEAKall!,” was developed using a combination of ideas from the College of Health and Human Sciences and one of Purdue’s Engineering Projects in Community Service teams. The driving force behind the application came from the team adviser, Carla Zoltowski, because of her experience with raising her autistic son Matthew, now 19.

Another mind behind the development was Oliver Wendt, assistant professor of special education, who uses it for his research on the development of communication for severe autistic children. Wendt said the iPad app has been extremely successful with the children because previous technology was inefficient, too expensive or just plain out-of-date.

“In the past, one of the most popular strategies to teach non-verbal children with severe autism how to communicate was called picture exchange communication system,” he said. “That worked in the way that the child would first learn to pick up the picture card (from a book lined with Velcro) and then (would) hand it over to the trainer for the desired item in return.”

As technology increased, the Velcro book became a speech output device. Wendt said when the picture cards were placed on the device, the device spoke the word so the children could learn it by repeating what it said. The iPad app is the third generation of the communication system.

“The (engineering) team and my team talked about doing this on an iPad,” he said. “We designed this app, where the upper portion replaces the communication book (where the symbols lie) and the lower portion (acts as) the sentence strip that speaks.”

The research team uses the app on autistic children in the West Lafayette and Lafayette communities. The children are observed in three different environments using the application – Purdue’s clinic, the child’s home and school. Ninoska Jones, the mother of a participating autistic child, Andres, said the application has helped to develop her son’s communication skills quickly, which was unexpected.

“I was impressed at the point where (the researchers) let him carry the iPad to tell me what he wants,” Jones said. “I thought that was going to take a long time for him to do that.”

During a home session, Andres used the iPad to tell his mother and the researchers what object was most appealing to him at the moment. He choose bubbles, but in order to retrieve them, he used the device to ask for them. After he listened to the word “bubbles,” repeated it and walked toward his mother, who was holding the bubbles, he was able to play with them. This is how the iPad application is used for educational purposes.

Jones said she is pleased with her son’s progress and hopes this will help his development even further in the future.

“I’m hoping as he gets older, it’s going to be a great tool for him to communicate his needs and wants,” she said. “I think it is going to really increase his communication skill to different levels; I’m looking forward to it.”

Nick Schuetz, senior in the College of Engineering and participant in the engineering project, said the application is important because it gives autistic children the opportunity to learn communication skills that can be used in different community settings, such as the grocery store and the mall.

“The fact that you can bring this interface software technology in front of the child who can actually learn to use it, develop their skills and have fun with it, just like everybody else on any other touch screen application out there, (helps them) develop a learning experience that is not only educational, but fun,” he said.

The application has around 3,500 downloads so far. Zoltowski said she can see how the application will benefit the children.

“What I think is great about ‘SPEAKall!’ is that it provides an area between really, really basic community and more advance opportunities,” she said. “It is really simple; the ability to modify things so quickly on it makes it easy for not only the users, but the autistic kids because they really adapt well to the iPad.”

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