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urTalker

App helps nonverbal users communicate

App helps nonverbal users communicate 

Houston Chronicle – Allison Ward – 8/16/2012 (click here for article)

“Nolan, can you say ‘Hi?’ Say hi please, Nolan. For Mommy? Can you say ‘Hi?’ ” Nolan Farris, 11, pointed to an icon on his iPad. A voice came from the device: “I love you.” His mother, Jody Farris, tried again.

“Thank you,” she said. “I love you, too. Can you say ‘Hi?’ ” Eventually, Nolan put his finger on another icon. The iPad spoke: “Hi.” Jody was elated: “Thank you for saying ‘Hi!’  ”

She was rewarded with the sort of response you might expect from any 11-year-old: “Hi,” the iPad said again. “Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi.” Over and over again, Nolan pressed the icon to say “hi” until the whole family broke down into giggles. This autistic child, who doesn’t speak, had just managed to get the best of his mother.

Nolan’s parents, Jody and Ryan Farris, created the software that allows them to have these moments with their nonverbal son. The Missouri City couple developed urTalker, an app for the iPhone, iTouch and iPad that gives Nolan – and others with communication barriers – a way to interact with the world.

“It’s been a real blessing,” Jody Farris said.

In addition to the autism, Nolan, who was born prematurely and weighed just over a pound at birth, has cerebral palsy and is partially blind. He plays piano by ear and has been labeled a savant. But without the ability to speak, he has struggled to communicate what he wants and needs.

In the past, Nolan found ways to cope. He’d use a talking stuffed animal to say “I love you,” an alphabet toy to spell out M-O-M. And when he wanted something, he’d point to a laminated picture or pull a family member over to the item and put their hand on it.

Now, when he pulls at them, his parents have his urTalker at the ready. Instead of gestures and guesswork, they can communicate with specific words and ideas.

“His frustration level has gone way down by using this,” said Ryan Farris. And so has his parents’.

urTalker Pro AppThe urTalker system looks familiar to any iPhone or iPad user: square icons line up to form a grid, allowing you to scroll through the choices and select the one you want. You can choose an icon to describe how you’re feeling – happy, confused, excited, frustrated. You can point to a picture of the body part that hurts, ask for specific foods or toys or say that you want to go somewhere.

“I might say, ‘Nolan, what’s going on? How are you feeling?’  ” Ryan Farris said, and his son can find the appropriate icon to answer. Not every thought can be expressed with a single icon, but “for the most part, he can get close.” To express more complicated thoughts, Nolan can string together short words to form sentences.

Communication tools for autistic users aren’t new, but the ones that dominate the market can cost as much as $10,000 or $15,000. Often, they can’t be customized at home and must be shipped back to the company to add or alter the content, which leaves users without a way to communicate for weeks at a time. And while schools will usually provide a communication device for students who need one, the process and the paperwork demand patience. That’s why the Farrises came up with an alternative.

“In the time we were waiting for the school to get us a device,” Ryan Farris said, “we thought of the app, built it and had it deployed into the marketplace.”

The Farrises worked with a company called Boundless Assistive Technology, which specializes in tools for people with disabilities. Boundless sells iPads that have urTalker pre-loaded. The Farrises, meanwhile, can sell the app directly as an iTunes download. The Lite version, $19.99, is designed for use on a small-screened iPhone or iTouch. The Pro version, $99.99, offers a full-size grid layout for larger iPad screens.

The app comes pre-loaded with 300 words and high-contrast images. Users can add an unlimited number of words and images to personalize the tool; the Farrises have added thousands to Nolan’s. Each addition takes about 30 seconds: Just find or take a picture, record your voice describing it, then drop your new icon into the proper category.

The urTalker was designed with autism in mind, but it can be used by others – people whose language and speech have been affected by a stroke, for instance.

Nolan uses the iPad system at his elementary school. At home, he can communicate with his parents and his sisters, Ella, 7, and Sophia, 2.

Nolan also uses it in music therapy sessions. His neurologic music therapist, Lupe Flores, said they’ll use the app together to choose which songs and instruments to play. She uses the urTalker with two more of her clients – kids who aren’t autistic but are nonverbal because of developmental disorders. Flores said she likes the urTalker better than the communication tools she usually sees.

“I find it a lot more accessible and less expensive,” Flores said. “For a fraction of the price, you get the same quality.”

The Farrises tweak the product every few weeks, adding some of the images users have requested. Once you’ve purchased the app, upgrades are free.

“We’re just trying to make it easier, more affordable and more accessible,” Ryan Farris said.

They’d like to make urTalker available for Android users, but that’s a long-term goal for now. The first priority is a Spanish version; the Farrises start work on that this month.

The app has been purchased by the Lufkin State School and is being used in a college speech pathology program in Florida. A handful of school districts in Texas have shown interest in trying the urTalker with special-needs students.

The app has also been downloaded by about 60 individuals in the past couple of months. Those aren’t big numbers yet. But the Farrises, who invested thousands of dollars in the urTalker’s development, don’t expect to make a living from the app’s sales.

“We’re not trying to make a million dollars off this,” Ryan Farris said. “We just want parents to be able to help their kids speak.”

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