Electronic Devices Help Non-Verbal Kids Find Their Voice
By Pam Adams
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 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 sign-language meaning of water from the movie, “The Miracle Worker.” It is a child who is nonverbal and has autism 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. 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. “It drives me insane.” 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.”
She wants the children she works with to use their devices at home, school, the grocery story, at the park or during meals. They do. For instance, varying types of assisted communication technology are evident at many schools, including Peoria Public Schools, where Selah is in a life skills class at Kellar Primary School.