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It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

June 17, 2010 5 comments

This guest post is by Geri Dawson, Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks.


The other day, I was talking to a mother who was telling me about her teenage son. The story was a familiar one to any mother who has raised a boy through the adolescent years.  He wants more control over his own life, has a short fuse, gets easily frustrated, and feels no one really understands him.  His mom tries to communicate with him, but much of the time, she’s at a loss figuring out what he really wants.  It’s been like this for a while now.

Most fourteen year old boys are struggling with these same issues.  But, there is one way in which her son is different: he has autism.  His spoken language is limited to one or two word phrases.  His mom described how he would repeatedly say “Rajaneba”, hoping that his mother would understand what he wanted.  This went on for two years.  She had no clue.  Finally, in desparation and frustration, he would start to hit himself.

Then, his mom heard about something that any 14 year old boy would want—and iPhone with a special app.  This particular application is really special, though—it allows users to tap words, phrases, or sentences on the screen to create messages that are read aloud by the software.  Samuel Sennott a graduate student in special education at Penn State, collaborated with a developer from Amsterdam to create Proloquo2Go, an iPhone application that can be used by people with language impairments to communicate.

It didn’t take long for her son to tap out “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” referring to a DVD he had watched over two years ago and that he wanted to watch again.  Raja – neba!  She happily found the DVD and handed it to him.

Over the next several weeks, the world changed for this mom and her son.  Her son had a lot to say as it turns out.  She found out that he has a strong interest in math and international events.  He’s doing a lot better in his classes at school. He thinks it’s really cool to carry around an iPhone. And, like most 14 year old boys, he’s spending a lot of time texting.

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