Selah isn’t ready to work yet.
Carrie Kerr asks, “Do you want a drink?”
Selah grabs a bright pink iPad programmed with more than 3,000 words and matching pictures, including a skunk for a fun kid word like “fart.” Pronouns in yellow-colored boxes, adjectives in blue, nouns in white, verbs in green with different shades for past tense and other conjugations.
Selah taps an icon for drink, taps another for water.
Symbols for drinking water appear on the screen and a girl’s version of Siri’s voice says “drink water.”
Selah Oelschlager is 6 years old and learning to talk.
“It’s hard for her to find the words verbally, but easy for her to find them here,” says Kerr, a speech pathologist, referring to the electronic device she calls Selah’s “talker.”
Once Selah finds the matching symbols and words on her talker, Kerr adds, “It’s easier for her to learn them verbally.”
The scene isn’t quite the breakthrough moment of Helen Keller’s discovery of the signed-language meaning of water from the movie, “The Miracle Worker.” It is a nonverbal autistic child stalling the start of a therapy session, the way young children find excuses to put off bedtime.
They are at Child’s Nature, Kerr’s new pediatric therapy center in Washington, Illinois. The scene may not be high drama, but it is a picture of the higher technology of alternative communication systems. Until about a year ago, Kerr and Selah’s mother, Tiffanie Oelschlager, say the exchange might have ended on less agreeable terms.
“The breakthrough was when she didn’t have to use behavior to communicate,” Kerr says. “Before, she would have gotten up and brought the water to us, or bolted, or screamed because we had no idea what she wanted. Now, she can tell us.”
In private life, Kerr worries about the widespread attachment to electronic devices. Her professional life is just the opposite.
“I want that child so invested in their device that it’s not seen as work,” she says of her therapy sessions for children with alternative communication devices. “It’s where their power is. It should be about their freedom, their ideas, their wants and needs. It’s simply their voice.”
The love affair with electronic devices has an upside for the children Kerr works with. The stigma attached to earlier, clunkier versions of alternative communication devices is disappearing, she says. “Almost all kids are carrying screens around now.”
Kerr works in a specialized field of speech pathology, augmentative and alternative communications, or AAC.
“It’s a whole world in and of itself,” says Jim Runyon, executive vice president of Easter Seals. “But they can be a life-changing experience for families with a child they’ve never been able to communicate with and who has never been able to communicate with them.”
Assisted-communication apps are available for iPhones and other electronic devices. Some units, like Selah’s, are solely for communication.
As Kerr explains it, children learning to use the device mirror children learning to speak.
Young children babble. They tend to babble electronically when they begin learning to use AAC devices.
Selah caught on to the mechanics of the device faster than her mother did.
“I thought she’d let it do the talking. But once she heard the words, she started to repeat them. Then it spiraled. The more words she learned on the device, the more she could say.”
Her once-common tantrums are now rare, her mother adds. Then Oelschlager mentions Selah’s journey toward finding a device-assisted voice.
“That’s the most amazing thing when you haven’t had one.”