Roughly one year after starting the process for applying to the Department of Education for an assistive technology device, it finally arrived! Well, to be honest, Quentin has had the device available to him since July – but for use in school only. This week, his Tech/Speak was able to come home with him for the first time, and now he can use it everywhere he goes. This means change – for all of us.
This post is a follow-up to one I wrote about in June, when Quentin was first approved of this Augmentative and Alternative Communication Device (AAC). What is this device we fought so hard for? It’s basically a machine that can “speak” for Quentin. Because he has difficulty expressing himself clearly, a piece of technology like this can really enhance the way he communicates. I’ll spare you the long story about why it’s taken it so long to finally be approved for school AND home use (hint: it involved a lot of red tape), and just get to the crux of the issue here: Is this thing going to really help Quentin more than his PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) – the low-tech kind of AAC?
First, let’s begin with the obvious. This machine is humungous, especially for a 5-year-old boy. It comes in a case that is bigger than Quentin’s backpack. While the product is supposed to be light-weight, it feels like carrying a very substantial thing – like 2-3 hardcover picture books. This is not great for a kid who is supposed to be carrying this everywhere he goes! He must take this AND his backpack to and from school every day. The first time I handed it to the matron on Quentin’s school bus I remarked, “Quentin will be checking in two bags for his flight today.” She laughed, and ever since then we refer to his second bag has his “suitcase.” Needless to say, this device will take some getting used to. It comes with a strap on a bag and a strap on the device itself, but I somehow can’t bring myself to make Quentin cart this around everywhere. (Can you imagine him on the playground with this thing around his shoulder? My boy will need a chiropractor more than a speech therapist if we made him do that!)
Beyond the size of the thing, there is the issue of it’s usefulness. He has become so great at PECS – his little green communication book. He not only uses it to request things, but also to clarify things he’s trying to verbalize. I use the pictures with him to give him choices (example: If I want to know if he wants eggs or cereal, I can show him both and he has to point or hand me the one he wants), and also to show him our schedule for the day on the weekends. With a machine like the Tech/Speak, there is no moving the pictures around, and a set number of pictures displayed on any one board.
But then there is the obvious benefits of a high-tech AAC device. This gives him a real “voice” and a way of communicating in a more conventional way. It was getting really funny when he started handing little PECS pictures to visiting friends and family to ask for things! There is something very satisfying about pressing a button that says the word you are trying to say, I am sure.
The Tech/Speak comes with 12 “levels” of vocabulary. These are customized boards created by his speech therapist with Mayer-Johnson Boardmaker symbols. Mostly, the boards she created are school-specific and academic. There is one for circle time, for example, which has symbols for greeting others and a calendar activity. There is another board for learning community helpers. We will have a few levels we have also devoted to home use, but space is limited. Every board has certain squares that will remain the same, such as “I” and “want” and “bathroom”. (A big priority!) For example, this is one we created for traveling on the weekends to different places:
Of course, my hope was that he would be approved for a touchscreen device that gave him more vocabulary to work with. My biggest concern is that his vocabulary is growing in leaps and bounds, but there is no way to expand beyond the spaces we have allotted. Alas, the evaluator from the Board of Ed was not convinced he could handle the multiple categories and sub-categories of a touchscreen device, and we got approved for the Tech/Speak instead. Given our first experiences with an ipad and the Proloquo2go software, I reluctantly agreed with her. (Although if we tried again today with an ipad, I’m sure that the newest IOS with “guided access” would help. This feature essentially locks the home button so you cannot get out of the app. Also, the ipad mini looks like it’s the perfect size for a portable AAC device, in my opinion. When we feel like shelling out the cash for this, I’m sure it’ll work out much better than our first attempt.)
So, the jury is out as to which is better for Quentin at home – the new Tech/Speak or our old PECS. My philosophy is to make them both accessible to him and we will use them interchangeably. In the short video below, Quentin demonstrates how well he can communicate with both of them, as well as verbalizing his request – when he is motivated!