Research Aims to Help Children with Communication Disorders Gain a Voice through Apps

Research Aims to Help Children with Communication Disorders Gain a Voice through Apps

A child examines an app where words can be selected in sequential order and then the app verbally communicates that sentence for the user. Photo credit: University of New Mexico.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida and the University of New Mexico have been awarded a $2.7 million National Institutes of Health grant to study how language therapy, combined with technology, can help children with severe speech disorders communicate.

Jennifer Kent-Walsh, a UCF professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Cathy Binger, a UNM associate professor of speech and hearing sciences, will study what level of instruction and intervention is needed for children with severe speech impairments to maximize the capabilities of commercially available apps that verbalize words for a user.

Apps currently on the market allow a user to select images in sequential order that represent the words the user wants to communicate, and the app then verbalizes that sentence.

“If a young child with unintelligible speech, or no speech at all, comes up to you with an iPad and starts speaking to you in full sentences, this creates a big mind shift about what that child is truly capable of doing,” said Binger.

However, there have been little to no evidence-based training options available for children to learn how to use these apps as communication tools. Kent-Walsh and Binger are changing this through their research.

“This grant is the culmination of many years of work and a lot of pilot data showing that it is possible to teach children to use picture symbol-based apps to communicate in grammatically accurate phrases and sentences,” said Kent-Walsh.

The goal of this research is to better understand how to support the development of children with severe speech impairments. Children with disorders such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or childhood apraxia of speech could benefit from this research, as well as any child whose communication needs are not being met. In the United States, about one in 12 – or about 8 percent – of children have communication disorders.

“When children can’t use their speech to communicate effectively, they often get frustrated and they may act out or shut down,” Binger said. “It can lead to all kinds of problems, like social issues and poor communication with family members. If these children are not provided with other ways to help them communicate, they also can end up with educational placements that may be inappropriate.”

Binger and Kent-Walsh’s new grant will focus on 3- and-4-year-old children who have severe speech impairments. At the onset, participating families will receive basic instruction in how to use the communication app, while some participants also will receive enhanced intervention sessions led by Binger and Kent-Walsh that are aimed at teaching them how to “speak” using the app. Results from each group will be compared to determine if the enhanced intervention had a positive effect on the child’s ability to communicate.

“We are thrilled to have come to a point where we are ready to roll out this intervention on a larger scale and track the communication performance of many children across states,” Kent-Walsh said.

The hope is that by providing these children with the necessary technology and instruction to more effectively communicate, they will be able to take full advantage of the same educational and social opportunities as their peers, which may, in turn, allow them to lead more fulfilling and successful lives.

The research will take place at UCF’s new Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST) Assistive Technology Demonstration Center in Research Park and UNM’s Speech and Hearing Clinic.

Kent-Walsh and Binger are seeking preschool-aged children with speech impairments to take part in this study (NIH#: R01DC016321) and a related study also funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH#: R15DC014585). Those interested in participating at UCF should contact Kent-Walsh at jkentwalsh@ucf.edu. Those interested in participating at UNM should contact Binger at cbinger@unm.edu.