New Technology to Help Nonverbal Autistics Communicate Developed by Team of Purdue Engineering Students

Video provided by, Channel 18 News in Lafayette, IN

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The inability to communicate with the “outside world” is perhaps the most frustrating aspect for a child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD,) and one that families of these children must accommodate on a daily basis. In recent years, however, new techniques and technologies have made it easier for nonverbal or semi-verbal autistics to communicate. From iPads and Smart Phones, to text-to-speech generators, to Google Glass and eye-tracking capabilities, researchers have found innovative and creative ways to help people with an ASD, and others with disabilities that make communication difficult, if not impossible.

One of the latest technological innovations to aid communication comes from Indiana’s Purdue University College of Engineering, where a team of engineering students has created a prototype of a handheld device called HEARD, or Handheld Educational Augmentative RFID Device, that can help children with autism (and adults, too) develop language skills. The HEARD device has been a team project developed by several team members over the past few years.

While a number of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices and apps that use pictures to help nonverbal individuals communicate with others, the HEARD device is different because it is a highly portable and easily customizable, and it utilizes radio frequency identification cards or RFIDs to add additional features or functions.

“For instance, if I had a picture of an apple, the RFID card would have an apple printed on it; and then you would place it on the device, and then it would output the speech. It’s something you and I do on a very regular basis, but for children who have difficulty expressing themselves that is a really helpful function for them to help build the communication and social skills,” said James Gerber, the design lead for the project this semester.

According to Aakash Gupta, another of the students who worked on the project this year, “Children affected by autism are having issues when it comes to communication, and current products aren’t satisfying those needs. We want to provide an effective method of communication, to give children independence compared to other products on the market,” said Gupta.

The HEARD group was named the top team and won $5,000 at this semester’s Schurz Innovation Challenge, the sixth held at Purdue. The competition, held once each semester, is sponsored by Schurz Communications Inc., and organized by Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurship and commercialization hub whose professionals help Purdue innovators create startups. It provides participants the opportunity to test their creativity and skills in developing innovative ideas in media technology.