Shriver Center developing software to improve communication skills for students with disabilities

November 05, 2013
William McIlvane

A software system to improve adaptive communication systems used by students with disabilities is being developed at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, a unit within UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division. The software aims to help educators by customizing existing picture-based technology in real-time -- using a student’s understanding to determine both the pace and path of instruction.

“This software actually is intended to help guide the teacher during teaching interactions,” said Shriver Center Director William McIlvane, PhD., the principal investigator of the project. “A lot of the work of organizing a teaching session is done by the software.”

Currently in phase two of its development, the Picture-Aided Communication Systems Manager is being created with the financial support of $900,000 in grants from the National Institute of Deafness and other Communications Disorders.

The system can be used in educational settings where instructors teach students with developmental and physical disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy, how to communicate through pictures or drawings instead of spoken word. More than two million people with communication disabilities currently use alternative communication systems, according to the American Speech and Hearing Association.

“You’re essentially trying to teach kids relationships between events in the world and symbols,” said McIlvane, also a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at UMass Medical School. “They need a medium for expressing wants and needs that doesn’t rely on speech, which is where picture-aided communication comes in.”

The software will address gaps in technology currently used to teach students picture communication systems. Teachers will be able to use the software to help customize decisions about their instruction, including when to add more to a student’s lesson, when to slow the pace or revisit material covered in a previous session. 

McIlvane said the software can help determine how to instruct students who have failed certain levels of picture communication lessons. The software will offer solutions tailored to student understanding and performance on previous lessons.

The Shriver Center software is also innovative. It can tell if a student has memorized a picture-word association, or truly understands the broader meaning behind the relationship.

“The algorithms structure teaching to contrast a given request with other similar requests to ensure students can express their actual desires rather than responding to pictures in sequences learned by rote,” McIlvane said.

The Shriver Center team hopes to finalize the development phase soon so the product can be tested with peers in the field of communication disorders. Testers will include teachers, speech-language pathologist and researchers. Once testing is complete, the system will be used in real-world situations with students and educators across Massachusetts.

The product is expected to be available for purchase in 2014.