Assistive Technology for Communication: Two Parents, Two Journeys

By Anna Kuang, FCSN Voices Youth Reporter

Great progress has been made in the field of assistive technologies for speech and language disorders. Assistive technology — any piece of equipment, software program, or system that can improve the capabilities of individuals with special needs — can be a big help in helping individuals better communicate and integrate with society. However, the world of assistive technologies is vast, and many products and options are available for parents and guardians to consider when implementing one in their loved one’s life. For instance, for individuals who are unable to verbally speak, there are numerous communication devices with different language systems available such as Dynavox, Touchchat HD, PrentkeRomich Minspeak devices, Tobii, Proloquo2Go. These language systems are icon-based systems that organize parts of speech, vocabulary, core, and fringe words into different categories and have the ability to spell out words and predict which word could come next. 

By pressing on a symbol in these systems, a voice will say a preprogrammed phrase and help an individual “speak.” For example, in one language system, pressing on the category “I want…” and the symbol of an apple would cause the communication device to say “I want an apple.” Other examples of assistive technologies include eye gaze emulators, which help individuals who find it difficult to use their hands to click on symbols.

To shed more light on such a valuable tool, two FCSN members, Jasmine’s mother and Kanaka share their stories on how their daughters use assistive technology and the reasons why they chose that particular technology to fit their child’s needs. 

One member of FCSN has a daughter named Jasmine, who has been in speech therapy ever since she was five years old and continued up until the onset of the pandemic. For her, the journey with assistive technology for communication is a gradual and ongoing process. She first started communicating using a binder of several laminated sheets of paper with printed out Boardmaker icons.

To make Jasmine understand what her communicative device could do, her mother would use positive reinforcement. For example, Jasmine’s binder had symbols for different songs and items, so whenever she pointed to a song, her mother would sing the song that she pointed to or give her the item she pointed to on her binder. With this tactic, Jasmine understood that she could tell her mother what she needed by pointing to the symbols on her binder. Later on, Jasmine transitioned to electronic devices, such as a Palm Pilot, a small palmtop computer with an ability to store many different icons. This allowed her to have a more portable communication device instead of multiple binders filled with Boardmaker icons. Today, she uses an iPad with the applications TouchChat and Wordpower . These applications display a chart of different icons (in charts of 4×4 or 6×7 icons  on the screen at a time) which link to other icons on other pages. Other apps she has used include scheduling apps such as News2You and ChoiceWorks, and Pictello an app that can create stories to talk about the day and schedules.

For Jasmine, the positive impacts of having a device to communicate cannot be overstated. Her mother distinctly remembers when Jasmine was young, her inability to communicate her wants and needs resulted in tears and frustration. To ease her daughter’s frustration, Jasmine’s mother became very adept at  identifying her child’s needs. However, with a communication device, Jasmine can now tell her mother exactly what she needs and wants and has become much more expressive of her desires and much happier. Most importantly, assistive technology has connected Jasmine with the people around her.  

As a perfect example of how diverse the experiences of special needs families are, Kanaka has taken a very different journey with her daughter, Janani. 

Like most people with assistive technology, Janani uses a speech generative device (voice output communication aid that supplements or replaces oral speech.) However, because she has difficulty using her hands to click on icons on her communication device, Janani uses an eye gaze emulator so she can choose different icons on her screen without needing to use her hands. Not only does the communication device give an independent voice to Janani, her device also has a high level of personalization which truly lets her personality shine through. For instance, Janani has added the word “Aloha!” as an icon on her device and says “Aloha!” to her friends and family. The color of her communication device protector can also be changed to any color she wants. Besides using assistive technology to communicate, Janani uses eye gaze emulators on her laptop to access her education, hand splints that help in grasping objects, and a switch-based page turner to independently turn pages of books.  

As part of the journey of finding the right assistive technology, parents must work with assistive technology and communication specialists to figure out the right assistive technology tools and software for their children, and with school teams to teach how to develop communication and language in their children. A popular way to teach individuals with special needs new skills is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors by setting concrete goals, determining the steps needed to reach the behavior modification and positive reinforcement. However some parents eschew the use of ABA to teach their children to use assistive technology (such as using it to teach them to press symbols on the iPad,) because they believe that it forces their children to comply with what is accepted as “normal behavior”, and prevents their children’s true personality from shining through or stifles their autonomy. However, if ABA is used to merely correct behavior around the communicative device, there can be great benefits. For example, Jasmine had the habit of touching symbols on her iPad multiple times, preventing the device from clearly speaking what she wanted and interfering with communication with others. ABA taught her to only press the symbol once and let the iPad speak before pressing another symbol. Overall, ABA has its costs and benefits, and it is the best if parents consider their children’s own needs when deciding whether ABA is right for them.

Despite the multitude of iPad apps, eye gaze trackers and different communication options available on the market today, it is clear that to successfully integrate a device into a child’s routines and life, parents and guardians must work closely with school therapists, teachers, and aides to teach them how to use the devices and help their children use them. Never give up, and always keep advocating and working with your child. 

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