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.

Picture Exchange:
Andrew's First System

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.

The DynaMyte

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.

Dynamyte System

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.

Andrew's Vocabulary

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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