Apps: The new bag of tricks in communication

For children who have difficulty speaking or writing, Augmentative and Alternative Communication provides a valuable means of personal expression. And the advent of the iPod, iPad and iPhone has revolutionized this field, creating more options for children to communicate at home, in school and in the community.

These technological advances have also unleashed a torrent of apps— short for software application or program — aimed at assisting those who have difficulty communicating. This article explains the benefits of AAC apps, provides a synopsis of top apps on the market, and explains how to find one that fits your child’s needs.

Who benefits from AAC apps?
AAC apps help children, with a wide variety of disabilities, who are unable to communicate successfully using speech. Some of those disabilities include autism, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, brain injury, visual and hearing impairments and genetic and metabolic disorders.

How do AAC apps help?
Because iPads, iPhones, iPods and their apps are portable and fairly inexpensive, they can be used for leisure and education. This can reduce a child’s resistance to an “educational” device. It also increases and sustains attention level, a crucial goal for many children with disabilities. In addition, the devices can often be adapted to a specific individual’s needs and abilities.

Because these devices are common in today’s culture, they help kids with disabilities relate more easily to their peer group. Children of all abilities can work together and develop friendships, which increases both success and the motivation to use AAC to communicate.

Today there are more than 50 apps useful for AAC, ranging from very simple choice-making apps to advanced communication apps. Below is a sampling of helpful AAC apps. For the purpose of this article, they are divided into three categories: picture-based communication, text-to-speech communication and speech-to-text communication apps.

Picture-based communication apps
The following three apps were chosen because they can be used by individuals of any age and because they represent three levels of communication needs.

Answers: YesNo is an inexpensive app designed for very basic communication such as making choices, commenting, ordering at a restaurant and learning new vocabulary. Two large buttons are presented at a time and the buttons can be customized with text, images, and recorded speech. This app is useful for those who have limited communication or fine motor skills. Cost: $1.99.

GoTalkNow advances the features of the more traditional “Go-Talk” communication device. It allows communication by selecting from one to 25 buttons on a page with the option for linking pages. Currently, there are no pre-made boards so all boards must be created using images from the iPad camera, photo library or the built-in internet search. Additional features include recorded voice, optional text-to-speech voices and video. GoTalkNow is useful for individuals who need more than two choices, but will benefit from a small message set due to limited visual, cognitive, or motor skills. Cost: $79.99.

TouchChat with WordPower is a communication app featuring a suite of customizable vocabulary programs, a variety of synthesized voices, 10,000 symbols, and the ability to import sound files, pictures and videos. Children communicate by selecting from one to 100 buttons on a page with the option for linking pages. Pre-made vocabulary programs meet the needs of basic communicators as well as those needing to hold a conversation. It provides both picture-based and text-to-speech vocabulary options. The WordPower vocabulary program has a history of proven communication success across many of the traditional speech-generating devices. Cost: $299.99.

Text-to-speech based communication apps
The following two apps were chosen because they tend to be used more frequently with individuals who prefer to spell.

Assistive Chat is an app for individuals with literacy skills who desire to communicate through spelling. It features word prediction (which guesses the word you want based on the first few keystrokes) to minimize the keystrokes required, adaptive learning of new vocabulary words, the ability to save commonly used sentences and a choice of three voices. Cost: $24.99.

Predictable is a text-to-speech app that provides word prediction, grammar prediction, category folders for storing quick phrases and prepared messages, social networking (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook), and a choice of nine voices. It was designed for individuals with ALS, but will be useful for children with a number of disabilities, including, but not limited to, aphasia, brain injury and cerebral palsy. Cost: $159.99.

Speech-to-text based communication apps
While not typically considered AAC, these apps are great solutions for those who can talk but have difficulty communicating through text.

Dragon Dictation is an easy-to-use voice recognition application that converts spoken language into text for use in tasks such as writing and e-mailing. Dragon Dictation is great for those who can speak but may have trouble writing due to poor spelling or motor skills. Cost: Free.

Dragon Search, from the same company, allows you to search online content using your voice. You speak your search queries and get simultaneous results from a variety of websites and content sources including Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Twitter Search, iTunes, and Wikipedia. Dragon Search is especially useful for those who have limited spelling skills, though anyone can use it. Cost: Free.

How to choose?
With thousands of apps to choose from, how do you select the right app for yourself or someone else? Fortunately, there are also apps that help you find apps.

App Shopper is a free app that lets you browse apps by topic, like AAC, or make a wish list of desired apps. It will also send you e-mail notifications of price changes and special offers for apps you’re interested in. Individuals, parents, care providers, and professionals will all find this app to be very helpful. Cost: Free.

Autism Apps is a comprehensive list of apps for those with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs. Apps are listed by category, and listings include a description, screen shots, reviews and sometimes a video of how the app works. The descriptions are all searchable, making it easy for individuals, parents, care providers, and professionals to find a particular type of app. Cost: Free.

Although devices like the iPad, iPod and iPhone are flexible and can meet a wide variety of needs, they do not meet every need. Before searching for the right apps and the right device for your child, it’s a good idea to begin with a complete communication evaluation with a Speech Language Pathologist who specializes in AAC. This is the best way to identify the most appropriate AAC tool for your child’s individual needs.

To hear Phyllis talk about these and additional AAC apps, listen to her podcast at crotchedmountain.org/theview.

Phyllis Watson, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist and a specialist in Augmentative Alternative Communication at Crotched Mountain ATECH Services in Concord. With more than 30 years of experience, Phyllis helps children, adolescents and adults with a variety of disabilities break through communication barriers through the use of AAC systems.

Categories: Stepping Stones NH
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