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Technology gives nonverbal students voices

Students at Elwood Haynes learn to communicate through 'talker' devices

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Toryn Kaufman

COMMUNICATION — Toryn Kaufman, 5, tells his teacher, Lydia Standish, which color magnet to retrieve from the whiteboard using a device that tracks his eyes to make selections that then are vocalized through the device.

Three nonverbal students at Elwood Haynes Elementary School were given voices this year, thanks to new technology that’s allowing them to communicate with their teachers, peers, and families.

This school year, the students’ teacher and therapists worked to find devices for them that work for each of their particular situations. For one student, he communicates through an iPad by manually choosing different words or images. For another student, he uses his vision to make selections. And for another, she’s still in the process of finding out what best works for her.

The technology they’ve been paired with, said special education teacher Lydia Standish, has opened up their worlds.

“We’ve just been able to really showcase their abilities and find a way to communicate with us because right now they aren’t yet verbal, so right now we’re finding other ways,” said Standish.

Standish said she’s been impressed with how much the students knew that they weren’t able to show before.

Last Friday, Standish and speech pathologist Amy Shrack worked with Toryn Kaufman, 5, who uses a device called an Eyegaze. The system has an eye-tracking camera mounted below a tablet that observes his eyes to determine where he is looking and make selections.

His teachers had him choose which colors of magnets on the whiteboard he wanted, and once he’d make a selection, Standish would retrieve the correct colors. Standish said Kaufman loves finally being able to tell her what he wants.

Cameron Butler

DECISIONS, DECISIONS — Cameron Butler, 4, selects words on an iPad last Friday at Elwood Haynes Elementary School using an app designed to help nonverbal children communicate.

Student Cameron Butler, 4, also now is able to let his teachers know what he wants. And, last Friday, he wanted to hear a popular song in the preschool classroom called “Open, Shut It.” He let Standish know by choosing “open” and “close” on his iPad. The teacher obliged.

“Cameron, it takes that frustration away when he can tell us what he wants to do or where he wants to go or how he’s feeling,” said Standish. “You hate to say it’s life-changing, but it really is. It sounds like a cliche, but it really is for them and their families.”

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Butler’s parents, Tiffani and Denny Butler, attested to that. They said his device has made communicating with him much easier. Before, they had to decide what he wanted based on noises he would make, but now he’s able to tell them specifically what he wants.

For example, they’re able to upload photos of his toys to the device, and he can choose the picture of the toy he wants to play with.

“Before when he would make the noises we weren’t sure what he needed or wanted, but now that he’s developed a little bit more, he’s learned how to ask for stuff whether it be the communication device or just learning to understand what we’re saying,” said Denny. “We take for granted that we can speak and tell you what we want, but he can’t even talk. But that doesn’t affect his hearing and his cognitive ability to understand, and I think it’s kind of amazing that he’s been able to do that and not talk.”

The parents said their hope is that once Butler has his tracheotomy removed he will be able to speak. But, even if that doesn’t happen, they said they feel good knowing he has a way to communicate regardless.

“Our goal or hope is that he’ll actually be able to have a voice … but if he doesn’t, and God willing that doesn’t happen, we have the ability to still communicate with him,” said Tiffani.

Leighton Rogers

READING — Leighton Rogers presses a button to turn a page to a book her class was reading on the computer. Rogers uses buttons as one of the tools to help her communicate with her teachers, peers, and family.

For student Leighton Rogers, 5, her teachers and therapists still are working to find a technology that works best for her. She has used an Eyegaze, but Standish said they are going to try something else that might be better for her. In the meantime, she uses buttons that are programmed with different phrases to communicate.

Over the holidays, her teacher sent her home with two buttons that were programmed using other preschoolers' voices at Elwood Haynes Elementary School to say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year." Her mother, Nicole Sheridan, said Rogers enjoyed being able to share those greetings with her family.

“It’s completely amazing. We don’t know how much she understands, but we praise her, and sometimes we see a glimmer of maybe she’s understanding, just like with the buttons. She’ll push them, and she gets reinforcement. So it’s been, this year has just opened up a whole new world for her,” said Sheridan.

Teni Helmberger, the director of special education for Kokomo School Corporation, said it’s been “amazing” to see the students transform.

“It’s been so exciting for us as a district to see what these kids know that we would have otherwise not known,” she said. “We didn’t know they knew their colors. You can tell when they get excited about the learning, but for them to communicate, that to us is amazing.”