Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

November 24, 2013

App offers autistic children a way to learn language

TRAVERSE CITY – It wasn’t too long ago that speech and language pathologist Matthew Guggemos would ask his autistic students “Whose shirt are you wearing?” and almost always get the same response: “Whose shirt are you wearing?"

That's changing, he said, with the help of a new teaching app called InnerVoice that he and Lois Jean Brady, a fellow speech and language teacher, co-developed this year.

On Wednesday, he asked the shirt question to one of his students using the app.

“Mine,” the student replied.

“Whose shoes?”

“Mine.”

“Whose arm is that?"

“Mine.”

The responses may seem like unusual measures of success, but they're an important breakthrough in changing repetitive speech patterns for the autistic students and their teachers, Guggemos said.

The tendency of his students to repeat words and sentences said by others is called “ecolalia," It's also a stumbling block in teaching autistic kids speech and language.

Guggemos, 41, is the son of former Lansing attorney Gregg and Mary Guggemos who retired to the Kewadin area about six years ago. He grew up in Lansing and has been teaching in the San Francisco Bay area for more than six years.

He teaches now in the Vallejo Unified School District northeast of San Francisco and also works one-on-one with autistic kids in clinical settings. The majority of his students,ages 3-22, struggle with some manifestation of autism. Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a general term for a group of complex brain development disorders that, in varying degrees, can result in social interaction difficulties, verbal and nonverbal communication problems and repetitive behaviors.

Guggemos began work on the new app January after noticing that his students seemed to have an affinity for computerized electronic devices — particularly tablets and smartphones that use educational apps and animated characters called “avatars” designed to help students learn. Children with autism often are more interested and engaged by their own thoughts and sensations than by other people or the outside world.

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