Stephen Lodge has developed a touchscreen application to help his severely autistic son communicate. Speaks4me takes a system where users with severe learning disabilities create sentences from a series of pictures and brings it into the digital age. Images representing words or phrases are dragged onto a timeline and dropped into place. Once a user is satisfied with the arrangement, a touch of an icon produces an audio reading of the phrase or sentence.

A few years ago, while searching for a suitable product to help his severely autistic son Callum adequately express himself, speaks4me creator Steven Lodge came up with the idea for a computer-based interactive communication tool based on a successful and popular autistic learning system, but the technology to support the idea was not readily available. That's now changed.

Flex those PECS

The speaks4me electronic communication and learning package presents the user with a series of tabbed categories containing Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) symbols. In order to create a sentence, a user chooses a category - such as sentence openers - and then drags the symbol to a timeline at the top of the screen. Dropping a series of symbols onto the timeline creates a phrase or sentence. On clicking an audio icon at the top right of the screen, the resulting creation is read out in a choice of realistic male or female voices.

There are currently over 2,700 symbols available in the package but customization is possible so that photos of parents, teachers, carers or even familiar locations or objects can be added. Deleting symbols from the timeline is undertaken using the backspace icon or by dragging the symbol from the timeline. Languages other than English are supported too.

Configuring and setting up the system for custom or personalized use will take some time and effort but the end user should get the gist of how to use it from scratch within about 30 minutes, according to Lodge. Speaks4me is currently looking into making the package more intuitive by incorporating some sort of predictive image facility, similar to predictive text on mobile phones, so that user's are not swamped by too many images spread over a large number of categories.

Configuration and availability

The speaks4me package is currently available in a number of pre-installed hardware formats including a 5-inch portable powered by an Atom 1.33GHz processor, an 8.9-inch convertible portable laptop with an Atom 1.6GHz processor and 60GB HDD, or a rugged 10.4-inch portable device with Intel Core Duo or Centrino processing power, an 80GB shock resistant HDD and magnesium alloy construction.

It's also available as a stand-alone software product for use on any device running Windows 7, Vista or XP (non-touchscreen devices can use a mouse to drag and drop). More information, including pricing and shipping information, is available on the product website.