For families with children who have autism, communication can be one of the most frustrating aspects of living with the disability. Experts in the field say about 66 percent of individuals diagnosed with autism are initially non-verbal, meaning they lack the basic speech and language skills needed to meet daily communication needs. A West Lafayette-based startup is working to surmount this challenge; it’s captured a prestigious national award for an app it’s developed that helps nonverbal autistic children communicate with a simple touch of their finger.

Based on research by Purdue University Assistant Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Dr. Oliver Wendt, SPEAK MODalities recently won the 2016 R&D 100 Award in the software category. The annual competition by R&D Magazine recognizes the 100 most “revolutionary technologies” introduced to the market.

Wendt says, conceptually, the SPEAKall! app is relatively simple: the upper portion of the iPad displays pictures or icons as visual cues, and the child selects what they want—a glass of milk, for example—then drags and drops the picture to the bottom portion of the screen to the sentence strip. The iPad then “speaks” the sentence for the child, such as “I want milk, please.”

In addition to the recent industry recognition, families are praising the app for helping children with autism find their voice. Jamie Yoder, an Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) consultant who works in special needs classrooms and mother of an autistic child, has seen the impact of the SPEAKall! app at school and at home. Her 11 year-old son, Levi, has autism, Down syndrome and hearing loss; she says learning to use the app has been “a game-changer for our family.”  

“[The app] helped him be able to order food at restaurants, let us know which videos he’d like to watch at home, what toys he wanted, who he wanted to put him to bed at night, what activity he’d like to do—go to the park or a movie,” says Yoder. “It gave him a voice and gave him a choice; we weren’t choosing everything for him. It provides the clarity we need to know what his wants and needs are.”

The app, which has more than 32,000 downloads and costs $40, is highly customizable; users can upload pictures from the child’s environment as visual cues or use standardized icons. The user can record a person’s voice to speak the sentences or choose from a selection of pre-recorded voices. Additionally, as the child’s vocabulary grows, more pictures can be added and grouped according to activity—such as school, meal time or play time.

Wendt, who is also co-founder of SPEAK MODalities, says one of the most important features of the app is that it “speaks” the child’s request. He notes that auditory comprehension is difficult for children with autism, but paired with a graphic symbol or picture, he says comprehension is easier. Many of the children using SPEAKall! as part of Wendt’s research have progressed from being nonverbal to developing their own speech.

“The [speech output] gets a lot of our users to put to use their own speech and language, up to the degree that some can actually phase out of the iPad and make those words now with their own voice,” says Wendt. “About 80 percent [of the app users] learn over time to develop their own natural voice with SPEAKall!…we expand those speech utterances step by step until they can complete a full sentence and also learn to do that more spontaneously.”

SPEAK MODalities has developed a second app to help children continue their progress, called SPEAKmore!. The tool is designed for children who have advanced beyond the first app and can expand their vocabulary and complexity of messages. As part of a recent grant from the National Institutes of Health, SPEAKmore! is free to download, so the startup can collect feedback from users.

As the number of children diagnosed with autism or related disorders grows at what some call an alarming rate, Wendt believes there’s great need for the communication tools. He says, today, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism, compared to one in 150 about a decade ago.

“It’s even more important now to give [children with autism] a means of fulfilling that need to be better communicators—to be able to participate in society,” says Wendt.

With the use of SPEAKall!, many of Yoder’s students have progressed from being nonverbal to having basic communication abilities. At home, Yoder says Levi is showing much less frustration now that he has a “voice.”

“He still has his challenges to build language, but I can’t imagine where we’d be right now without learning SPEAKall!. It’s meant the world to us,” says Yoder. “I think everybody, regardless of ability or disability, wants to have a voice and wants to be heard.”  

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Yoder says the students she works with are showing progress and excitement with the app.

Wendt says the R&D 100 award is “top-level validation.”

Wendt says children with autism often have better behavior when SPEAKall! provides them a method of communication.