A young user of the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices at a summer program for youth with communication disorders hosted by Our Lady of the Lake (OLLU) on June 25, 2019.
A camper uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device at a summer program for youth with communication disorders. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

After petting a golden retriever sitting next to her in the library of Our Lady of the Lake University, Kayla Jansen used the speech-generating device attached to her motorized wheelchair to convey what she could not verbalize: The dog, she said, was “soft and cute.”

Jansen, 19, has cerebral palsy and is unable to communicate verbally, leaving her unable to articulate her feelings or give voice to her wants or thoughts in the typical way. But Jansen has plenty to say, and she uses her text-to-talk tablet to do it.

On Tuesday morning, Jansen attended a summer program at the university designed to help youth with communication challenges learn how to use apps and adaptive technologies to express themselves to the best of their ability.

Graduate and undergraduate students studying communication and learning disorders help kids in the Be AACtive Communicators program practice using speech-generating devices that resemble an iPad and feature an array of icons representing words, phrases, and ideas. The students show the program participants where to find words to express their thoughts and assist them in piecing sentences together, said program co-founder Jacqueline Treviño, adjunct clinical professor in the Woolfolk School of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“It is difficult for these kids to figure out where and how to represent words like ‘awesome,’ and ‘cute,’ but volunteers help them put the words into a meaningful context through their device,” Treviño said.

These devices, known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, take different forms, with some that feature keyboards for spelling out messages and others that can connect to other devices like televisions or printers Bluetooth technology.

For Jansen, the small icons on her device’s screen are symbols representing foods, activities, emotions, and even complete sentences. Asked how she would use her device to order food in a restaurant, she pushes a button, and a voice states clearly: “Excuse me, I have something to say,” and then she can look for  the food icon for what she wants or use letters to spell it out.

“This is about these kids feeling confident to communicate,” Treviño said. “They have a lot to say, and they want and deserve to be heard, despite not being able to communicate what they need verbally.”

The eight-day program, which is in its third year, helps OLLU students learn to evaluate and treat individuals with complex communication needs, said Yvette Lozano, an associate clinical professor.

“We have programs at the Harry Jersig Speech-Language-Hearing Center Clinic … that work with very young people to geriatrics,” she said. “When you have a communication disorder, you have to continuously work to keep building your skills” in order to be understood.

Six-year-old Joaquin, who is nonverbal, is attending the program for the second year in a row in order to continue practicing with his voice output device. His current goal is to put together two-word sentences, or pairs of words, that make sense together.

His mother, Heather Rubio, told the Rivard Report that she sends her son to camp to get him thinking about words, phrases, and ideas that are different than what he might experience day-to-day at home.

Program participants make art, interact with therapy dogs, read books, and use their devices to describe how they feel and what they think, aided by professionals who are trained to use the various speech-generating devices utilized by the campers.

 “We want Joaquin to build competency and confidence in communicating his needs and desires, and to respond directly to people when they talk to him,” Rubio said. “The people working this program are helping him to figure out how to best access the right words.”

On Tuesday, Joaquin was working on communicating using the words “like” and “don’t like.”

“We want to make sure these kids leave here better able to let people know they have something to say, and give them the confidence they need to say it,” Treviño said.

For Jansen, who smiles and makes eye contact when using her device to communicate, building her adaptive technology communication skills means she can start and end a conversation with her own personal touch.

“It was nice talking to you. It was nice to meet you. Thank you,” she said.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.