In Their Own Voices
On the same street as Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., is another school you’ve probably never heard of: Hope Technology School. Hope Technology’s student body comprises a mix of disabled and nondisabled students in grades pre-K through eight. Many of the disabled students are autistic and often have difficulty verbalizing even basic needs.
A disabled student population can mean big costs for schools, and Hope Technology is a nonprofit that’s always looking for creative ways to save money. “We sympathize with the great financial needs of kids with special needs,” says Sandra Lee Burke, the school’s speech and language pathologist. “You have therapy and more therapy, and you have biomedical stuff. You have $10,000 and $20,000 AAC devices.”
AAC, or augmented and alternative communication, devices are used to help autistic people communicate. Some of them convert text to speech so a message can be typed and then spoken by an automated voice. While invaluable to many, these devices also have certain drawbacks. For starters, purchasing them often needs to go through a liaison, and then specialized training to use it is required. The devices also can’t integrate new material from the Internet or other applications. In other words, they are useful, but somewhat limited and expensive.
Last year HP heard about Hope Technology when a story about it aired on NBC News. Combined with the encouragement of a student’s father who works for HP, the company donated enough TouchSmart computers to equip every classroom with two of them. As one would expect, Hope Technology was thrilled.
The school quickly assembled a think tank to figure out how to best use the new technology. The school looked into HP-compatible software, but found much of it to be out of its price range. “We have this $900 computer software program that we downloaded. It’s working great, but [we thought], isn’t there something else we can do?” Burke says. “I think that’s another reason why we had to be so creative: because we can’t afford to keep downloading $900 software.”
Burke says someone in the think tank suggested students record their own voices on the Voice Notes program that came standard on the HPs. In some ways, they thought, it might be an improvement from the computerized output the AAC devices use to communicate what a student says.
With Voice Notes, a user can easily record notes by touching a microphone on the screen and then speaking. The notes are then saved and labeled. When someone touches the note, it can be heard through the computer’s speakers. Thus began what the school would come to call Project TouchSmart, an initiative that would help the students improve beyond expectation.
One autistic student, in particular, responded really well to hearing his own voice, Burke says. The student, she explains, was mostly nonverbal; teachers, peer educators, and Burke were working to help him improve his verbal abilities. The educators helped him write voice notes with messages that he could use later in the classroom. He couldn’t use his voice, but he could type, Burke says. “So he would type out, ‘Hi, Bobby. How are you? What did you do in school today?’ Because he’s autistic and has a hard time just communicating, in general, we thought, ‘What a great way to include him in the classroom,’” she says.
Later in therapy, the student practiced by repeating the messages he had recorded out loud. His friends would also be able to write back using Voice Notes. “It was a way for him to be able to interact; it was a way for him to express his wants and needs,” Burke says. “How empowering is that for a student who is nonverbal and has to depend on voice output communication devices to be able to say even something as simple as ‘I need to go to the bathroom?’ He could say it now in his own voice.”
Once the school saw this student’s success, it moved quickly to start using Voice Notes with other students with similar difficulties. Burke says the school always had computers in the classrooms, but the HP TouchSmart computers were more effective. “I don’t know what it is—maybe because they can touch the screen,” Burke mused. She was able to continue to use the TouchSmart to help other autistic students play games with the other students.
Burke relates another story about a student who had difficulty using the school’s computers. This student’s mother told Burke that while he loved playing on the computer at home, he was very afraid of using one at school. Burke worked on desensitizing the child to the computer, getting him to slowly overcome his aversion. Since he was familiar with the computer at home, he then took to the school computer quickly, and Burke was even able to get him to start playing computer games with others. “Suddenly he was talking to the computer, but with appropriate phrases,” Burke says. The child is now in third grade and interacting well with other students.
Burke has been amazed by the progress the kids have made using the TouchSmart computers. “It kind of opens up a whole other world. You feel for the parents who come in and say, ‘I’m coming to this school because I want my child to have a friend who’s [not disabled], and that’s huge.” Burke says often students set up playdates that wound up disastrous because the disabled student didn’t have the social skills to be able to interact with the nondisabled students.
Giving the disabled students more opportunities to socialize and interact with the nondisabled students helps the entire school community, Burke points out. She says now two autistic students have a standing playdate every Friday afternoon with a nondisabled student. “That’s priceless in terms of what it can do for a parent, for the child himself, and even for teaching the [nondisabled] child to be compassionate or empathetic with a child who has special needs,” Burke says. Another benefit: The non-disabled children can see that the disabled children aren’t as different as they might seem, she adds.
The school is also using other types of speech technology to help students. “We use Microsoft speech recognition. We’ve done that, too, for some of the kids who have fine-motor challenges; it’s really hard for them to type, or it’s hard for them to spell. It’s this labor-intensive process,” Burke says. “We have a lot of kids who know what they want to say or what they want to write, but can’t get the words out or can’t write the words.”
The school was also able to get Dragon NaturallySpeaking software from Nuance Communications for some of those students. “[We’ll do] anything we can do to make it easier for kids to learn or easier to help the kids be more included,” Burke says.