Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Best Communication/AAC App*

When it was time to pick an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) system for Maya, I kind of didn't know where to begin. It was 2010, she was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 years old, and I was already a little (ok, a lot) bitter that no one had suggested looking into AAC before I discovered it on my own. (We had been receiving therapies by the bucketload since she was around 10 months old.)

The iPad had been released several months earlier, and Maya was fortunate enough to receive one from relatives who knew that it could open communication doors for her. We quickly bought "the best communication app" around, downloaded it, and then thought "ok, now what?" (AAC experts are quick to point out that having a communication app doesn't make you a good communicator any more than having a piano makes you a good pianist . . . it's all about modeling, teaching, and practicing.) I fumbled around, making page-based digital boards (like, I made a folder for "food" and then a folder for "breakfast" and then a page with breakfast words). I didn't know what I was doing, but it worked . . . until it didn't. Maya could easily select what she wanted to eat for breakfast, but she couldn't talk about her day. She couldn't tell me what she was thinking. She wouldn't learn to use verbs or construct sentences (other than a very few simple ones). The system fell apart.

We moved on to plan B. I wanted her to have a dedicated communication device, or an SGD (speech generating device). The speech people that I consulted with (typically over the internet) who knew apps and knew SGDs clearly favored the SGDs, and I did too. They were designed linguistically, by SLPs or language experts (or both), and they were set up in ways that made sense . . . ways that lent themselves to appropriate, meaningful language growth. Everything had been considered---grammar, verb tenses, the things that I couldn't even think to anticipate because I have no linguistic background. I even wrote about how Maya wasn't going to be a long-term app user, that as soon as she was ready she would move to a dedicated SGD.

Until I had the representatives from the big communication companies come to my home, to show me their product lines (now we're in fall of 2011, a year past our initial app acquisition). As it turned out, the devices were (crushingly) not what I had hoped for. One company's entire line didn't make good linguistic sense to me (oddly enough, this is the company that seemed to provide most devices through the preschool assistive tech evaluations in NYC). There were pop-ups, there were (a bazillion) folders, sometimes when you wanted to exit a page you had to tap in one corner, other times that button was somewhere totally different. No good.

The other company had potential, and the wise words of a fellow AAC parent had led me to suspect that I would favor their devices . . . and I did . . . but they still weren't good enough. Their simpler device (geared toward younger users) was too simple, and Maya would have outgrown it too quickly. Their more advanced device (which serves people into adulthood) was too advanced for a 3 year old. There were still too many layers. Without drowning in specifics, there was a shifty top row that would have been initially tricky, and there were often times still too many screens to navigate through to find the desired word. The language system was brilliant and the consultant was lovely, but it wasn't a fit. And, at upwards of $8000.00, we couldn't gamble on the fact that she "would probably" grow into it.

So we had nothing. I begged online, hoping that somehow, somewhere, I was missing an app that would be a perfect fit---designed with linguistic development in mind, simple enough for a pre-literate 3 year old but designed in a way that would allow it to easily grow with her into and through adulthood (if she continued to need AAC support). Seven weeks later, that app (Speak for Yourself) came onto the market and changed everything for us.

These are the reasons that Speak for Yourself (SFY) is, in my (only sometimes) humble opinion, is the best communication app on the market:

1. Only Two Taps: In SFY it only takes two taps to say any word. ANY WORD. Eat? One or two taps, (depending on how you customize). Waffle? Two taps. (None of this "eat"-"food"-"breakfast"-"waffle" folder organization). Tyrannosaurus rex? Two taps. (Seriously.) There is no other app or device that allows you to program EVERY word as a two-tap word. This alone would have sold me, really. It lets the AAC user speak more quickly, it makes things easier to remember and find, it's fantastic. Two taps, any word. Awesome.

2. Motor Planning: One of the biggest frustrations with other apps (and some SGDs) is the fact that they don't take motor planning into account. Example: If your child is using a screen with four words, those four words fill the whole screen. If you want to change to six words, everything moves, and the child is left thinking "wait, yesterday "eat" was in the upper right corner . . . where the heck did it go?" I wrote an entire post on motor planning and why it's amazing, including a video clip of Maya unknowingly showing the power of motor planning. There are only two apps that incorporate motor planning (SFY and LAMP:Words for Life). Some other big communication apps can be creatively programmed in a way to try to mimic this principles, I think, but that level of programming is out of my realm of experience and seems kind of mind boggling.

Combine these first two reasons, and it's already a clear stand-out. (As mentioned, the LAMP app does the motor planning, which puts it in second place, but it takes more than two taps to say some words, and it doesn't do some of the stuff that I'm about to list, so it remains a firm second.)

3. Simple to complex, easily. When Maya started using the app she only had a handful of words open. Now she has hundreds (thousands? I really don't know). Opening new words is easy, and the programming is something that anyone can learn to do after a few minutes on youtube. My son started using this app at 17 months. You can start young (and should). (Video of opening/closing words)

4. The Search Feature: A little magnifying glass on the home page allows you to type in the word your looking for. The feature has text prediction, so if I am looking for "ball" when I type "b-a" words like baaah, baboom, baby, baby wipes are all popping up---along with the picture that accompanies them in the app (so a pre-literate child could scroll through and find the ball picture, even if all they know is that it starts with the letter B). When you tap the word, the boxes actually light up to walk you through the app to the word you're looking for. No other app has a search feature that is nearly as user-friendly and clear as this one, and I haven't seen any app that has a search feature that a pre-literate child could use. (Video of search feature)

4. Babble: I didn't understand the power of the babble feature right away, but Maya showed me quickly how important it is, and my 18 month old son is now a fan of it as well. The babble button allows the user to turn on all of the words in the app with one touch, and then have a grand old time exploring on their own and finding all sorts of fun words---without messing up your programming. Trust me, it's important. We would have had no idea how much Maya likes the weather (because I didn't have all of those words open) until she found "rainy" on her own and kept going back to it, over and over. (Video of Maya using Babble)

5. History Tracker: I don't even fully know how to analyze all of the data that you can collect with the history tracker (like rate of communication and number of words used) but what I do know is this: when I send Maya to school I cross my fingers that she's using her device. With the history tracker, I can actually see how long the app was active for, what was said, and what time those words were said. That's important to me. (Video of history feature)

6. The Basics: I guess I should mention that all of the basic things that I was hoping for are met with this app. Text-to-speech, a QWERTY keyboard, the ability to change the pictures that are in the tiles, the ability to use photos or internet pictures or whatever, the ability to change the pronunciation of a word if it sounds weird.

7. Bells and whistles: Maya is only 5, so we don't use the app to it's fullest potential. I like knowing that eventually she can send text messages from the app (if we make the switch to iPhones). The "Hold That Thought" feature is a unique way that a user can write a sentence (or paragraph) and "hold" it until they are ready to say it---great for answering questions aloud in class or giving a speech or even just talking with people and being able to say your whole thought at once instead of tapping it out slowly.

8. Support and community: The developers of SFY answer emails, respond to Facebook comments, and are tireless in supporting people with complex communication needs and their families. There is also a Speak for Yourself Users Group on Facebook, where ideas, questions, screenshots, video clips, and photos are shared and discussed.

Why am I writing all of this?

First, because I get a lot of "I'm starting to look at apps and I'm not really even sure what I'm looking for" emails. This is an easy way for me to lay out my thought process and why we chose SFY.

Second, because Speak For Yourself is half price on April 2, 2014 (sorry if you're reading this after April 2nd!). It's an amazing deal. I would hate to wake up to an email on April 3rd that says "can you tell me why you picked SFY?" . . . I'd be kicking myself for not laying it out for everyone to read.

Third, because I remember what it was like to spend all of my free time researching AAC, apps, devices, communication boards, PECs, etc. I was desperate for answers, hints, people to brainstorm with, anything. I hope this helps.

(in case you haven't seen it, this video shows Maya's AAC progression, from 2-4.5 years old, through signs, communication boards, PECs, and 2 apps)

*for most people, as far as I can figure out. While it is switch accessible it doesn't yet work with eye gaze, so there's that. 

Disclaimer 1: I am not affiliated with, nor do I represent, Speak for Yourself. I do not have a financial relationship with them and have nothing to gain by writing this. They were unaware that I was posting this until after it went up.

Disclaimer 2: If your child/client/parent/friend successfully uses a device or app that I seem to not be a fan of, then I am truly happy that they have a working system. This is not an attempt to badmouth other systems, but rather an attempt to reach families who want "something" but can't even figure out what features to compare and contrast while looking at a surprisingly crowded field of communication apps and devices.

Disclaimer 3: I'm not a professional, just a really educated mom. I'm going back to school to become a professional, but it's pretty early in that game.