Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 24, 2013

App offers autistic children a way to learn language

BY LORAINE ANDERSON landerson@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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.

He asked himself how he could make an app that would help deal with ecolalia. By February he had reviewed volumes of autism research and identified at least four other stumbling blocks the app would have to address in order to engage his students.

The four learning barriers include:

* The tendency of many autistic children to avoid eye contact, an important aspect of communication and connecting with others.

* Joint attention problems that limit a child’s ability to learn through imitation, to develop play and social skills, and to pay attention in learning situations such as a classroom. Joint attention is when two people look and think about the same thing at the same time. It increases conversation skills.

* Slow development of the mirror-neuron system in the brain that is critical to understanding speech, actions, other people, as well as limits the ability of autistic kids to copy something someone else is doing.

He and fellow speech-language pathologist Lois Jean Brady, who has 25 years experience teaching autistic children, came up with an early prototype that incorporated MotionPortrait technology.

MotionPortrait, a Sony subsidiary, can create a variety of facial expression animations from a single image. Its Photo Speak app, which is no longer on the market, can transform any portrait into a moving 3D "avatar" that repeats every word and uses sequenced mouth movement in a pre-recorded message.

Using the MotionPortrait, Guggemos took pictures of students repeating a pre-recorded correct response instead of a repeated question. He played it back to them. Many of the students who watched their recorded response modeled the movements appropriately.

“In essence, the InnerVoice app provides people with autism the opportunity to model critical skills from a source they trust and know – themselves,” Guggemos said.

With MotionPortraint’s help, he and Brady co-developed, tested and refined prototypes that led to the InnerVoice app, which is based directly on Guggemos' patent-pending interactive visual self-modeling and remote prompting software.

Guggemos and Brady are business partners in iTherapy, which creates assistive technology. Brady has previously co-developed three apps. An author, she also is producer of AutismTodayTV, which is available on YouTube.

The introductory cost of InnerVoice is $9.99, to keep it affordable for schools and families, Guggemos said. It eventually will sell for $19.99.