Using a phone voice


The new Grace app is set to give some children a vital communication tool, writes CIARA O'BRIEN

A new application for the iPhone will turn the phone into a mini Picture Exchange System (Pecs) book, a system used for those who are non-verbal or have difficulty communicating.

The idea came from Lisa Domican, a parent of two children with autism. She took the idea to developer Steven Troughton-Smith, who created a replica of the Pecs books on-screen, even down to the Velcro strip.

“For some people, it will be their introduction to giving their child a voice,” says Domican.

There are several advantages to the digital system. First of all, it simplifies the process of adding and removing symbols from the “book”. Instead of laminating new symbols – a painstaking and time-consuming process – the programme user need only take a photo of the new item of interest. This can then be e-mailed to tutors and other carers, to keep everyone updated.

“There’s such a power imbalance for these children,” says Aisling Ardiff, outgoing director of the Saplings school in Rathfarnham. “Anything we can do to empower them where we have control I think is so important.”

It’s also less conspicuous than the Pecs books, and more socially acceptable for older children.

Using the application can also cut down on the frustration experienced by both parents and children with autism, and the associated anxiety and behaviours, when they can’t effectively communicate their wishes. While the Pecs system is useful, it takes time to update. The ‘Grace app’ can be updated instantly, and the children can also add photos themselves, allowing them to show parents or tutors exactly what it is they’re looking for.

It has been undergoing extensive testing over the past couple of months, with a number of students, tutors and parents to ensure that the system is easy to use for all. The programme, which was named after Domican’s daughter Grace, has been tweaked based on the feedback.

The application now includes the pictures for children to express pain, encouraging them to communicate when they feel ill or have hurt themselves.

“A lot of people think autistic kids have a high pain threshold. They’re flesh and blood like anyone else. What they don’t have is the social understanding to communicate what they’re feeling to you,” says Domican.

“They don’t stop running around. Our kids don’t know to act sick.”

It was intended to include a section on expressing pain in a later release of the app over the next six months, but a few weeks ago, a friend’s son was seriously ill in hospital, and hadn’t been able to communicate his condition.

“All of a sudden, it had urgency about it and I wanted to get it out there.”

Based on requests from parents, Grace also now includes the images and symbols to allow parents, carers and tutors to communicate with their children, thereby creating a two-way communication system.

However, Domican was reluctant to include this facility originally.

“I would say to people that ideally you should probably do this from a different handset. We’ve created a contract with this handset. The children know if they’re asking for something, you know that’s what they want. If you then pick it up and use it to start telling them what to do, the contract is a little bit broken.”

It’s recommended that, like the Pecs books, parents have their own device to communicate with their children.

Parents using the system have found that their children are being encouraged to talk more. Although there are a number of apps that help children communicate, there is a significant difference with Grace.

The Grace app , which went on sale yesterday, costs €29.99 from Apple stores

'It has almost completely replaced her Pecs book'

Emma Hade (12) tested the application with her parents.

She really took to the application, says her mother, Joyce. As part of the testing, Emma was given a phone with Grace loaded on to it, and now has a 32GB iPhone of her own.

“She took about 3,000 photos,” says Joyce. “As well as using the phone, she’s verbalising more often. That’s something we didn’t expect. We’re thrilled with it.

“When you’re the mum, you tend to know what they want. However, other people wouldn’t be as quick. It’s less frustrating for her.

“At 12, it’s a lot more socially acceptable. She has it with her all the time. It’s almost completely replaced her Pecs book.

“She knows how to use the iPhone better than I do. I’ve had to password- protect my phone because I found she was even deleting some of the images she didn’t like. I was looking for an image to use and found she had deleted the images she didn’t want; all the ones she liked, were still there.”

What is Pecs?

Developed in 1985, Pecs stands for Picture Exchange System.

The system uses a ring binder of laminated images that attach to a strip of Velcro in the book to form sentences.

The images can be added by parents and tutors as the child’s interests widen. They can be used to ask for items or to express things, such as “sore head” or “sore knee”.

Simple sentences can also be constructed, and carers and tutors can use the system to effectively communicate with the child.