Company formed to advance tech for children affected by autism

A child affected by severe, non-verbal autism uses the SPEAKall! app to communicate during a session in Purdue's speech, language and hearing sciences department. (Photo Provided/Purdue Research Foundation)
A child affected by severe, non-verbal autism uses the SPEAKall! app to communicate during a session in Purdue's speech, language and hearing sciences department. (Photo Provided/Purdue Research Foundation)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — A new startup company is working to advance and commercialize a Purdue University developed technology to improve communication for children and families affected by severe, nonverbal autism.

The Company, SPEAK MODalities LLC, will help to advance the technologies of the SPEAKall! and SPEAKmore! iPad applications, developed by Oliver Wendt a Purdue assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences and educational studies. Wendt has worked with children diagnosed with autism for more than 20 years.

SPEAKall! helps children with severe nonverbal autism by using photos and graphic symbols that represent what a child wishes to say and helps the child construct sentences from those images. SPEAKmore! is for children who have advanced beyond the initial app and now need to expand on vocabulary and complexity of messages.

Wendt told News 18 in a press release, that the initial app launched in 2012 as a free version through iTunes. He said the app was quickly adopted by the autism as well as the augmentative and alternative communications communities.

“Within a year the app was downloaded more than 10,000 times and proved to be successful for families and caregivers,” said Wendt, who co-founded and serves as chief science officer for SPEAK MODalities.

Wendt said it’s estimated that up to 66 percent of the 2 million children diagnosed with autism are initially nonverbal. He said they do not develop enough communication skills to meet daily communication needs.

“We are working to help these children and their families. The overwhelming success of the free app resulted in a demand for support and advanced features,” Wendt said. “We could not provide advanced support through the basic SPEAKall! program, so we started looking at other ways to meet this need.”

According to Wendt, the free version of SPEAKall! provides for the management of up to 20 graphic symbols, two activity sheets and one learner profile. There are upgrades to this version available, which gives the ability to select pre-recorded or synthetic speech, add literacy labels to graphic symbols, track user performance and organize content into media libraries.

Premium versions of the app must be purchased, but Wendt said it enables enhanced features and expandability.

The app was originally developed under Wendt’s leadership by Purdue’s Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program.

SPEAK MODalities was formed with assistance from the Purdue Foundry, the Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy, Purdue Innovation and Commercialization Center and the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization.

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