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Computer technology give voice to children with autism (Video)

By KBell
Jan. 7, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 7, 2012 at 7:08 p.m.

Teachers Vanessa Villafranca and Vivianna Villesas work with autistic students at the Vine School at the First United Methodist Day School.

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Erin Hatley and Meredith Potts offered contact information to anyone seeking more information about how the communication devices can help kids and adults who have trouble communicating.

Hatley can be reached at TheVineSchool@gmail.comPotts can be reached at MeredithPotts_@hotmail.com. Potts also has a web site of references and videos of therapy at PottsSpeechPathology.com

"Tunnel."

The electronic voice reverberated in a classroom void of children's voices.

But 8-year-old Adam Garcia was communicating. He was asking for cardboard toilet paper tubes.

"Tunnel."

Erin Hatley, co-founder and director of The Vine School, caught on quickly to what Adam wanted.

Thanks to a handheld computer called Vantage Lite, teachers and students at the private school for children with autism are able to understand each other's worlds - a life-changing triumph in what can seem the lonely, frustrating mind of a child with autism.

The Vantage Lite "has given Adam a voice that he otherwise did not have. He can express his wants, needs, emotions, and (it) has even given him a new personality," Adam's mom, Rosemary Garcia said in an email. "I can't think of a better gift of language in these communication devices for a child who does not have a voice."

Called an augmentative communication device, the computers students use at The Vine School offer an unlimited amount of vocabulary far beyond the colors or shapes students may otherwise typically learn in the classroom. Each word and its various forms, including tenses, are categorized on a screen of symbols.

Clicking a photo of a bed, for example, will take the student to a page containing various forms of the word "sleep" or "tired," and even nouns like "bedspread" and "pillow."

Words are always in the same place, allowing students to relate motor movements to sounds.

"It's very similar to how our brains organize language," said Meredith Potts, a speech pathologist who works with students at The Vine School. "This is a system that can go with them from when they're 2 all the way to when they're 30 or 40."

Of course, the goal is always to get students to speak on their own, Potts said. Whereas some see the communication devices as a last resort for kids and even adults who have trouble communicating, Potts and Hatley have chosen to use the computers as a tool to get there.

While they say students have made tremendous strides toward speaking and understanding language structure along the way, the computers have also helped students control their behavior.

"Just think about going through life not being able to tell anyone what you want," Hatley said. "It alleviates so much of the frustration and meltdowns."

The software for these devices have been around for 20 years, but only recently has their popularity caught on, perhaps thanks to the iPad, Potts and Hatley said. Potts spends considerable time testing different devices for each student but has found that other software and applications on the iPad often don't compare to the Unity Language software students at The Vine School use.

Each device costs about $7,500, but grants and insurance can usually help out families who need the computers.

Since first testing out the devices three years ago, five students now use the computers at The Vine School, and their progress has Hatley and Potts bursting with pride when telling success stories. Every step toward better communication calls for a celebration, Potts said.

In class Wednesday morning, after playing with his "tunnel" and eating a few bites of popcorn he requested, Adam had another thing on his mind.

"Cupcake."

Teachers reminded him to spell out a complete sentence.

Quickly, Adam used his communication device to say, "Give me cupcake."

And not a second after he shoved a piece of chocolate cupcake in his mouth, his fingers were back on his computer screen.

He pecked away, then held out his palm again.

"Give me cupcake."

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