Devices help give voice to students
who are autistic
By Luis Zaragoza Mercury News
December 13, 2006
It looks like an ordinary computer
keyboard with a narrow display screen running across the top. Boxy.
Plain. Nothing extraordinary.
But this drab device translates keystrokes into spoken words -- a
concept familiar to anyone who has heard the clipped yet engaging
computer-generated speech of eminent scientist Stephen Hawking. The
technology offers hope of faster and easier communication for some
people with autism, a neurological disorder characterized by
difficulty in verbal communication.
So add potentially life-altering to
that plain keyboard's description.
That's why the Pacific Autism
Center for Education in Sunnyvale, a school for young people with
autism and other developmental disorders, would like to have two
LinkPLUS keyboards ($2,500 each). It's part of a family of what are
called augmentative and alternative communication devices.
What this means for Jan Netto is
that her son Joey, who attends PACE, now has a voice.
``He's come into his own since he's
had access to those devices -- he's kind of clever with that kind of
thing,'' she says.
To see autistic students break
through the speech problems and sensory overload that typify autism
and finally interact with the people around them ``is monumental,''
says Kurt Ohlfs, PACE's executive director, who has a special
connection to the technology.
On any given day, classrooms at
PACE resonate with the sounds of learning. The soothing voices of
therapists and aides combine with an ever-changing array of sounds
produced by children of all ages who sometimes lash out in
frustration. Behavior issues are a chief reason public schools refer
autistic students to specialized schools such as PACE.
PACE was established by parents and
instructors who realized public schools are not equipped to give
autistic children the personal attention they require. In the
specialized environment that emphasizes order and routine, the
breakthroughs big and small keep PACE's instructors motivated. Like
expert locksmiths, they prod and cajole students in hopes of landing
the right combination of therapies to put them on the road to
It's a huge task.
An estimated 1.5 million Americans
have some form of autism. It is such a vastly complex condition that
no single therapy or device can be applied across the board.
Still, technology is evolving so
swiftly that PACE instructors are eager to employ devices that help
students express their curiosity and reduce the frustration that
comes from their inability to easily relay wants and needs.
LinkPLUS was developed for people
who have lost the ability to speak -- but can still type or use a
stylus -- because of a brain injury, stroke, disability or
degenerative disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
It's also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and it's what caused
Hawking's paralysis and loss of speech.
Sixty percent of the 53 students at
PACE don't speak. Therapy for some involves classroom study. Others
use devices with touch-screen technology that foster interaction
between students and others -- a key aspect of learning at the
In one exercise, a therapist guides
Joey Netto in using a touch-screen device that displays various
icons representing pre-set questions and objects. Playing the role
of library clerk, Joey helps other students check out books from the
collection. He uses a stylus to select questions such as, ``What is
your name?'' The device translates the set message into spoken
words. The student selects another icon to ask a student his
classroom number. Another icon results in a simple ``Bye'' when the
transaction is over.
``Good job!'' therapist Christy
The exercise shows just how
comfortable some students can be with technology. And that's what
makes something like the LinkPLUS device so exciting. There's no
telling just how much an autistic student has learned until a way is
found for him to express himself.
Ohlfs says he's observed some
students who are somewhat bored with tapping icons on a screen but,
given access to a keyboard device, suddenly blossom, speaking
It's a particularly satisfying
result for him, since he began his professional life as an engineer
building the same type of touch pad devices that he is now hoping to
use more extensively to help students at PACE and elsewhere.
So how did an engineer come to run
a school? Through a series of events, he became a board member for
PACE, and then interim director. He was tentative at first, but
found himself absorbed by the daily challenges. His tenure kept
being extended. Lately he has been involved in sharing advances in
autism education with other agencies and public schools. Much of
that work involves changing attitudes about what people with autism
Given his background, he's busy
developing new ways to employ technology in teaching. He's currently
involved in using video to track student development. And because he
knows it inside and out, he's eager to see how touch-screen
technology can be adapted to propel PACE's work.
``If I can leverage technology I
helped develop -- I'd be thrilled,'' Ohlfs says, displaying the
enthusiasm and determination that have helped him thrive in his new
career. ``Nothing is more fulfilling than to be at both ends of