Purdue app gives kids with autism their own voice

Stevie Rettig, 6, works with Purdue professor Oliver Wendt on SPEAKall!, the app Wendt created to help kids with severe developmental disabilities.
Stevie Rettig, 6, works with Purdue professor Oliver Wendt on SPEAKall!, the app Wendt created to help kids with severe developmental disabilities.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — An app developed at Purdue University is making a difference in the lives of local children affected by severe, non-verbal autism. The app, called SPEAKall!, teaches kids affected by the disorder how to form words and sentences.

Some children with severe autism may go years without saying consecutive words, but SPEAKall! aims to change that, using pictures of what kids already know, such as their favorite foods or toys, to teach them how to speak.

“What you need to know about children with autism is that they are very visual learners,” said Oliver Wendt, chief science officer of SPEAKMODalities and Purdue assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences. “It is much easier for them to process information if it is given to them in a very visual, perceptual way.”

The pictures are dragged by the child to the bottom of the screen, triggering the app to say the word, or a whole sentence, out loud. The child then hears the word and is prompted to say it themselves.

“You have to do this stuff every single day from the time you get up to the time you go to bed, or it’s worthless,” said Kendra Rettig, whose 6-year-old son Stevie has severe, non-verbal autism.

Stevie Rettig can say a few words and occasionally a full sentence. Even those small steps, which most parents probably take for granted, are monumental moments for his mom.

“First come tears, then a big party,” said Rettig. Just one year ago, saying a full sentence was impossible for Stevie.

The Rettigs are one of 20 families Wendt and his team of students have worked with since 2011. SPEAKall! is available for download on iPad and can replace effective but bulky speech therapy tools like books and cards. It’s easy to see the progress Stevie has made, but it’s also easy to see the hope the hi-tech therapy gives his mom.

“At 6 years old, he can say this much to me — such a huge step — what’s he going to be able to do when he’s 18?” said Kendra. “He’s going to be able to communicate with me, and that’s my prayer every day, ‘Please let my son be able to communicate with me and the world.'”

The world is taking notice of SPEAKall!. Wendt said more than 21,000 people have downloaded the app.

“Kids with autism or other severe developmental disabilities can do so much more now than they could do so much more now that high technology devices are available,” said Wendt. “They can be better integrated in home and school environments.”

Jamie Yoder’s son, Levi, who has Down Syndrome and autism, has also been using SPEAKall!.

“I think it makes a world of difference for Levi,” Jamie said. “He is always very happy when [Wendt’s team] is there, and we’ve seen him make tremendous progress.”

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