Luke taps the screen of an iPad, and a tiny machine voice chirps, “fish crackers.” Easterseals Arc staff member Danielle Jones gives him a yellow cracker shaped like a fish. Luke pops it into his mouth.
To a stranger, it might seem like a small moment, but it represents the culmination of a couple of months’ learning. For Luke, 28, it’s an important step into the world of words. Luke, who is nonverbal, is learning to link images on the screen of the tablet with things that he likes in his room at the Adult Day Center at Easterseals Arc. In week after week of practice, Jones exposes him to the idea that he can move images around on the screen to ask for things that he wants or enjoys.
They’re using the Speak-All app for the iPad. This software, developed by a start-up hatched at Purdue University, allows people who are nonverbal to move photos or symbols around on the screen. By moving images into a blue strip along the bottom of the screen, the person using it can prompt the computer to “say” words. In Luke’s case, the small array of words on his screen all are tied to the setting of the Adult Day Center, where Jones works with him. Some are snacks he likes, such as those fish crackers. Others are small objects he enjoys, such as an electric piano or a ridged plastic pipe.
When they began work together, Jones held Luke’s hand and guided his finger to touch images on the screen over and over. Each time the tablet “spoke” a word, she gave him the object or snack that had been named. Now they have progressed enough that she touches or supports the bottom of his wrist to prompt him to touch the screen instead of guiding his finger to an image.
The next milestone in their journey is practicing his use of the iPad enough to enable him to take it home with him every day. There his family can reinforce what he’s learning with Jones. Eventually, he might be able to ask for some things or people more quickly and clearly than ever before.