Let me take you back 12 years. Adrian was 5. They used the PECS system, where picture icons representing items or ideas are used to help non-verbal children communicate. But they also dabbled in sign language and Adrian would sometimes use that. All the while the speech therapists continued to work on his vocalizations trying to make that a productive way for him to communicate.
Even when Adrian was 5 we knew none of these methods were going to be ‘the’ answer for long term communication. Being techies, my husband and I looked to our home computer for help. We wrote a program that would offer him the pictures and play back recordings of us saying the word. He loved it and did use it. But even with a laptop, it was hardly convenient or portable. Though it did help us convince the school that Adrian could handle one of those fancy communication devices which more or less did the same thing.
Adrian had 2 different communication devices over the span of nearly a decade. Each took an insane amount of time and effort to get for him. Each lasted less time than it took to get through all the red tape to obtain in the first place.
A few years ago he added another tool to his communication toolbox. Writing. But like with the PECS system, technology has the ability to make this skill a better communication tool.
For years now I’ve handed Adrian my phone to type out his message. It’s convenient and effective. But I don’t believe the usefulness of such a device stops there. You can access everything from a sign language dictionary to pictures and icons. You’re a click away from programs that can easily turn words into audible sound. They’re more versatile, more portable, more functional than the fancy communication devices he’s used in the past.
So we set out again to try to bring more tech tools into Adrian’s capable hands. Funny how technology has changed so much… but the red tape has not. The school first insisted on a professional evaluation to determine if he could use a communication device. Uh, duh.
The red tape goes on and a year later Adrian gets an iPad on loan from the school. But after using it with him for one weekend I’m really wishing I’d pushed the evaluator harder towards a smaller device. While it’s certainly more portable than the devices he’s had in the past, it’s still a lot to tote around everywhere you go. And I look at my smart phone which can do most of the same things and wonder if it’s not a better choice.
The justification for the iPad over a smaller device for the evaluator was based on the fancy communication app that has 80+ buttons on a single screen. So it can’t work on a device smaller than an iPad.
But… do we even need buttons with icons at this point? The dude can write! Heck, teens his age are known for being able to text faster than most of us can type on a regular keyboard. Is finding the proper icon through pages of 80+ really going to be faster for him?
My conclusion? No, it’s not. Especially at the cost of the portability and ease of use.
I understand the how the speech therapists and evaluator think. There’s this idealized image of the student who uses these fancy communication devices and apps to speak whole sentences while their communication partner patiently waits. I too once imagined that’s how it would be for Adrian. Perhaps for younger kids that still not a bad way to try to go.
But Adrian is 17 now and he’s lived all 17 of those years learning the fastest, easiest method to communicate his needs to many different people in many different circumstances. He’s already developed skills to get his point across. He doesn’t need a device or app to come in and save the day. He only just needs one more tool that will supplement and augment what he’s already able to communicate.
While the fancy communication apps with icons are perfect for the younger set who haven’t learned to read or write, they’re just not the best choice for someone who can simply type out a few words to get their point across.
I plan to meet with the speech therapist to discuss all this in the coming weeks. I’m willing to give it a shot and see what she can do with these new tools… but I’m pretty sure I already know what the end result of all this will be.
The iPad will be a great tool in school, at a desk. But the residential staff and Adrian will balk at using it out in the real world because it’s just not practical. I know cause we’ve been there, done that.
But I’m less concerned about that now. I bought Adrian an iPod Touch for Christmas. It’s in a tough Otterbox case with a lanyard so he can easily carry it around his neck. And he does carry it. Staff reports they bring it on all their outings and he takes it with him where ever they go. I put the notepad app in a prominent place and recently loaded an app that turns text into speech. Once the staff and/or Adrian discover how helpful those are when he needs to say something… he’ll have the technology tool he needs for the real world.