Purdue Students Develop App For Children With Autism

[Techtaffy Newsdesk]

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.

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.’ ”
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.

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. 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.

Upload: 04-23-12

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