Over the past decade or so, the dialogue around autism has opened up, and the stigma of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has greatly dissipated. Many well-known and well-loved fictional characters and real-life people and families are living with ASD – think Don from the worldwide best-selling novel ‘The Rosie Project’ or Hollywood director Tim Burton (self-diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome), or actors John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone, who are both fathers of sons with autism.
Despite the wider social acceptance of ASD, the fact remains that living with autism as either a child or their carer still presents enormous challenges. Add the element of being non-verbal, and you have extra difficulty and frustration. When a non-verbal child struggles to communicate their desires, needs or emotions, their parents and caregivers can be left with feelings of frustration, guilt and inadequacy as they try to fulfil the natural instinct to help their child be a contented and included member of the community.
Irishman Rob Laffan was one of those parents – his 5-year-old daughter Sadie has non-verbal autism, and when she tried to communicate with her mother or father it would often end in communication breakdown and meltdowns on behalf of an understandably frustrated Sadie. They often used an aid much like a picture book (known as a Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS for short), where Sadie could point to what she wanted, needed or felt, but this came with limitations. Firstly, it relied on the non-verbal user being able to take the PECS to the person they wished to communicate with, which is only possible if they are in the same location. Secondly, such a tool can get lost or damaged, and perhaps most importantly, it can’t be easily updated or personalised.
After spending countless hours with his wife laminating, updating and replacing pictures for Sadie’s PECS, Rob came up with the idea for an app that takes the idea of a PECS, but utilises the technology available today and combines it with the electronic devices that are found in most homes – tablets. His breakthrough app – called TippyTalk – can be used on both Android and Apple platforms, making it accessible to an enormous worldwide market. That’s a lot of families who can potentially be helped by TippyTalk.
TippyTalk works by translating pictures that the non-verbal child selects on their tablet into text messages, which are then sent to a family member or caregiver’s phone or tablet. The adult can then respond immediately, thus helping to circumvent communication breakdowns. One bonus that Rob has discovered is that with each message he receives from his daughter, he gains a further insight into her personality, which he finds deepens his relationship with her.
Barriers of a physical nature are also broken down with the use of the app, allowing the non-verbal user to contact a loved one no matter where in the world they are at the time, as well as letting them communicate with two or more people at once.
TippyTalk also aids language development, with a function permitting a parent or caregiver to record their voice over the top of each picture in the app, which reinforces the words for the child. The app can be customised for each user, so no two units are likely to be the same, and control is given back to the adult who can easily capture images familiar to their child and program the app to suit.
Rob’s measure of success for TippyTalk sounds modest, but is in fact mammoth in its influence on the lives of families: he wishes for his invention to facilitate social inclusion and independent choice for non-verbal people.
As the medical and scientific worlds continue to delve into the causes and possible intervention options for autism, TippyTalk provides an immediate solution that allows people with non-verbal ASD to communicate with whomever they chose, instantly, at anytime and anywhere. Simple concept, massive impact.