AUGCOMM SYSTEM PROVIDES A VOICE FOR A YOUNG CHILD WITH AUTISM
by Cynthia Bott
Fall 1998, Vol. 10 No. 1
Andrew is an energetic 5 year old with autism who loves Mother Goose, singing
any Disney song, and kisses. He attends a private school designed for
students with autism. As coordinator of the early childhood program, I see
Andrew on a daily basis and have the opportunity to observe his interactions
with his peers and teachers.
Andrew does not speak. He does make efforts at sign language and verbal
approximations, but only upon request and rarely spontaneously. Andrew is
agile and has excellent fine motor control. Cognitively, he exhibits
splinter skills in academic areas. He has a list of over 100 sight words
that he can identify, and he can sequence numbers past 25, yet he cannot
retrieve objects by name or understand the simplest abstract concept. Andrew
also has great difficulty sitting still for longer than three seconds at a
time, making it even harder for his teachers to assess his knowledge.
Last year Andrew's family purchased an augmentative system to aid his
communication. Prior to this, he had been using a Picture Exchange
Communication System with about 50 computer-generated pictures representing
Andrew's most common needs and wants. While this helped alleviate some of
Andrew's frustration, it did not provide him with a voice, and it
also became difficult to include all of his increasing needs. At a language
seminar, his parents became introduced to a high-tech system called the
DynaMyte (Sentient Systems Technology), a small, hand-held unit which
they purchased with help from their insurance company.
Andrew's First System
Andrew's DynaMyte was the first that I had ever seen of this model,
and it is truly amazing what it has done for him. It is a square, gray box,
about 7 inches on each side, and 2 inches deep. It has a touch screen, with a
protective, plastic lid that flaps open and shut. Andrew's parents had a
customized carrying case designed with padding and a longer strap than
originally supplied to protect it from accidentally being dropped. This
enables Andrew to carry around the system himself, without his teachers and
parents fearful of any damage he might do.
The DynaMyte has a memory card installed, and it is simply programmed
to meet individual needs. The speech therapist and Andrew's mother attended
a special training session to enable them to program his system and
troubleshoot any problems that may arise. When looking at the touch screen,
one sees three rows containing icons of folders (four in each row). Each
folder represents a different category, which when touched changes the screen
to a specific overlay of pictures/letters/words appropriate to that category.
There is a blank bar across the top of that overlay, and when Andrew
presses the icons he wants, they appear in that bar in the order they are
pressed. When his sentence is complete, Andrew needs to touch that bar, and
the system reads aloud the entire sentence.
For example, if Andrew wants to ask for a pretzel, he touches the food folder
on the master page. This calls up the food page, with an assortment of
phrases and food symbols pictured on cells. He then can touch the "I
want" "pretzel" "please" cells and they will appear
in the bar that runs across the top of the food page. Then, with a touch on
that bar, the DynaMyte reads the sentence in its entirety. The memory
card installed in the system has an extensive vocabulary, and if a word is
programmed in that the computer does not recognize, it will read it
phonetically. All the programs that Andrew needs are contained within the
system no additional hardware or software is needed, just the ability
to set-up each folder so that it contains individualized items.
Currently, Andrew has several folders programmed into his system that
enable him to communicate his needs both at home and at school. His pages
include: food, drinks, school (with circle time vocabulary, early learning
concepts, etc.), music (with a "sing me" cell and various song
titles), reinforcer items (videos, computer game titles), letters (arranged
in a "qwerty" keyboard format), and home (family names, book and
movie titles, etc.). Prior to receiving the system, he was evaluated for his
ability to move from the master page through several different folders.
Andrew's success at that time was incredible, and to see him currently move
from page to page with no difficulty finding what he desires is amazing.
Andrew Now Expresses His Preferences
The DynaMyte goes with Andrew everywhere. At home, he apparently
takes it to bed. The system has become his voice, and he truly understands
that concept. At school, it sits on his desk within reach, or next to him
during group activities. His spontaneous language has increased dramatically,
since now he knows people understand what he is requesting his family
often hear the voice asking for items throughout the house without any
questions having been asked. It has been eye-opening to his teachers to
realize that when they present Andrew with a choice of what they think he
wants, and he turns around and voices a completely different opinion, they
were wrong. For example, the teachers may try to reinforce Andrew's good
behavior with a choice of pretzels or soda, and he will use his computer to
say he wants to listen to music! Andrew has also demonstrated a hidden
phonetic ability that we might not have discovered for some time had it not
been for his letters page. When his computer was first being programmed and
he did not have all the words in folders yet, he would go to his letters page
and "spell" out words using phonics and invented spelling. This
also made us realize just how much more he was absorbing from his reading
programs than we had originally thought.
The one behavioral issue we are discovering about Andrew now that he has a
voice is his desire to perseverate on various topics usually his
favorite videos or songs. He will either type in a title several times
before hitting the speak bar (so his teacher will hear "Mother
Goose" spoken five times in a row), or he will repeatedly ask for the
same item over a long duration, ignoring all other pages on the system. While
we are addressing this issue from a behavioral standpoint, we are, at the same
time, glad that he now has the communication capabilities to do this!
Because Andrew's fine motor control is refined, he can use a clear point to
touch each individual cell, and these cells are small in size. This will
allow room for expansion of the system's vocabulary in the future. I would
like to see Andrew become more involved in the community and use his system to
communicate to people other than those in his immediate circle. As a
5-year-old with some behavioral issues that still need to be addressed, his
access to the community is limited. His DynaMyte, however, is the first
step to breaking down that barrier. He is less frustrated about communicating
than before, and the system has a clear enough voice output that the general
public will be able to understand his requests. Andrew is a different child
because of his DynaMyte, and he will be able to go so much farther than
many of his teachers ever realized.
For More Information:
Sentient Systems Technology, Inc.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
available from Mayer-Johnson Co.
Cynthia Bott is a graduate student in the Department of Special Education
at The College of New Jersey.
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