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A Portable Communication Aid for Frank

Frank is a mobile and active 11 year old who is on the autistic spectrum.

He has no speech, but uses a combination of gestures, some BSL signs and the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). He is starting to recognise some written words, but relies on pictures and symbols to aid his understanding and access to the curriculum.



The challenge

Although Frank’s signs and gestures could be understood by those familiar to him, it was hoped that he could become more integrated in the classroom setting and improve his social skills and ability to form friendships with his peers. As Frank had a wide vocabulary of signs and was motivated by visual materials and computers, CALL assessment indicated that a high tech voice output communication aid (VOCA) could be useful to him to support his non-verbal communication.

Our approach

There were several assessment stages in identifying a suitable VOCA for Frank.

After our first visit, he borrowed a medium tech ‘Go Talk’ device for a short trial, in which time he showed that he could identify symbols, use the device in functional situations and use it appropriately at snack time. He would also spontaneously look for the device to make requests in school.

Frank was very keen to use the device and staff needed to frequently record new messages and change overlays, with a limited number of vocabulary items able to be stored. We soon decided to try a more powerful device with a larger number of items available. This would involve a VOCA with a series of linked screens containing pre-stored vocabulary, known as a ‘dynamic screen’ device.

Frank tried out a ‘SpringBoard Lite’ communication aid, which has digitised or recorded speech. We gave him a display of 32 items and assessed whether he could identify the smaller symbols and match them with the spoken output, find vocabulary items by category e.g. hat stored on the clothes page and navigate the screens e.g. go from the ‘food page’ back to the ‘main page’ and then to the ‘people page.’

He was able to do this and also did something that demonstrated his very strong visual skills and showed additional promise for functional VOCA use. Frank pressed ‘cider’, when he was looking for ‘apple juice.’ The symbol was of an apple and a barrel and so he had visually processed the symbol and made attempts to use it meaningfully.

CALL personalised the vocabulary on the device and Frank then had a loan of the SpringBoard Lite for two months, after which his progress was reviewed. Following discussions with his Speech and Language Therapist, school staff and parents, it was clear that Frank had made good progress with his communication, in limited settings. CALL then provided the team with ideas for how to develop his use of the VOCA with his peers, in class activities, for interaction around school and to communicate between school and home environments.

It was also agreed at this stage that the SpringBoard Lite would be the most suitable device for Frank, due to its portablitity, ease of programming and being appropriate for his level of ability, using pre-stored vocabulary and messages. Following CALL recommendations, funding was pursued within the local authority, whilst the CALL device was still on loan. Frank then received his own device 2 months later.


A real success story. Frank is now using his SpringBoard Lite along with his gestures, signs and low tech communication system to integrate more fully in class and is also starting to communicate more effectively with his peers. Training for school staff and family is ongoing and CALL remain an advisory contact in helping to develop Frank’s communication skills.