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Macworld 2011: Expressive helps the speech impaired learn and communicate

Speech therapist Barbrara Fernandez founded Smarty-Ears apps last January and has since created over 15 apps for the field. I spoke to her about Expressive (US$29.95) an augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) app that at first seems similar to the much more expensive Proloquo2Go, but it serves two purposes.

Like most AAC apps or devices, it allows those without the power of speech due to Autism, Downs Syndrome or even temporary verbal problems to communicate. Tapping on categorized symbols allow one to build phrases that are spoken. The app contains 450 pre-set symbols and more can be added.

The second purpose of the app is to teach language and the relationship between symbols and words. Many children have a limited vocabulary and too many unfamiliar symbols would be confusing and overwhelming. "You can start out and delete everything and slowly build the vocabulary and specifically design the application to meet the needs of a student. I think that's the main concept here." Expressive helps with "limited expressive language communication skills," so it's appropriate for all levels of communication disorders.

Expressive is meant to be used by speech therapists in conjunction with parents to build a child's vocabulary and communication skills. In its simplest iteration, you would start with a noun. When that has been learned, an instructor can add modifying words and build up from there. Although it may sound simple, seeing a picture of a ball and understanding that it represents all balls may not be obvious for some. There is an edit mode where symbols can be added or deleted and a user mode that doesn't allow changes. Without this, a child could inadvertently delete everything.
Smarty-Ears also has apps for people with other communication problems. There are apps for those that stutter, and kids with articulation delays who have problems pronouncing specific sounds. A number of them are meant to be used by speech therapists, along with special education and ESL teachers. Barbara hopes to make all of her apps bi-lingual. Expressive will be offered in Spanish and Portuguese very soon.

One of Barbara's favorite apps is Pocket Pond HD, an interactive fish pond that she uses to teach the simple concept of interaction. The app looks great, and touching anything in the pond creates splashes while fish, lily-pads and other objects can be added. Cause and effect is not always a simple concept.

Currently, only about 15 percent of speech therapists are using AAC apps, but the number is growing and Smarty-Ears will be in the forefront of the field.



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