Nether Hall School provides education for pupils with severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. They’ve been working on a DigiLit Leicester innovation project, evaluating iPads as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACC) devices, to support communication for learners with speech impairment. The majority of students at the school have difficulties with speech and language, and many use AAC devices to help them to communicate. The school identified several issues with commercially available ACC devices: bulky design and look; limited functionality (for example, only supporting a few words); and cost (with many priced between £4,500 and £14,000), which limits the number of devices the school is able to afford to provide.
Helen Robinson, Head of sixth Form, and Heather Woods, Communication Specialist, discuss the final report and reflect on the project:
The project began with identification of the students who would participate in the trial and the software that would be used. Through discussions with the school speech and language team, The Grid was chosen as the most appropriate software for the project as it was seen to have more facilities and, most crucially, linked to the school’s current systems, for example Eyegaze and Communicate: in Print. Sensory Software, the makers of The Grid, provided staff training and have provided additional support throughout the project.
Initially, the team had intended to create a standard grid for use with all learners throughout the project. However, it became clear early on that with the diverse needs of their learners, and the capabilities of the software, bespoke grids could (and would need) to be created for each child. The training provided to the school was key in enabling them to create personalised communication grids for each of the students involved in the trial.
Working with Students
The first stage was to introduce the device as a tool, with a grid that was appropriate to each individual pupil. Serious consideration, based on assessment and experience, was given to deciding whether to use True Object Based Icons (TOBI), photographs or symbols for each student.
One to one teaching sessions with the Communications Support Coordinator (CSC) were given to demonstrate to the pupils that if they touched the photograph or symbol, they would receive the item they had requested. In this way, a relationship of trust was built around the use of the device. For some pupils, simply recognising that they could interact and take control of the proceedings was sufficient to motivate them to use the device for communication.
Once the iPad was established as a communication device, the grid was developed. This was bespoke to each individual pupil:
On the simplest level, the photo began true to size and gradually became smaller and moved to a different part of the screen after selection meaning that the pupil had to be more accurate to request the item or activity. Next, an item that was known to be disliked was added. This was to test whether the pupil was selecting an item or simply pointing and touching the screen randomly. If this item was selected, the pupil had to hold it and interact with it. The next step was to make the icon move after it had been touched, again to check that this was not random. The pupil had to look at the icon and touch accurately to make their choice.
On a more complex level, photos were the starting point; in some cases these were photos of the class and staff. Pupils would then use the device to participate in registration activities. This led quickly to adding symbols for lessons. Alternatively, the standard grid on ‘The Grid 2’ was used and simplified to the level that worked with the individual pupil.
Since the beginning of the trial, the school have seen significant benefits to their learners through the use of the iPad as an AAC device. Learners have made improvements not only in their communication skills, but also in terms of behaviour and their relationships with staff and family. As the project progressed, it was decided that funding would be used to bring in Karen Cameron and Sarah Younie, researchers from De Montfort University, to work with the school to support the research element of the project; specifically the writing of the project report.
- A device which can be tailored to an individual childs needs which can then grow and develop with the child.
- Costs a fraction of other equal more expensive communication devices on the market.
- Looks cool and appropriate for children, teenagers and young adults.
- It’s high picture and sound quality reduces confusion compared to other communication devices.
- To write use of iPads into the schools policy for devices as communication aids.
- To train staff in supporting Pupils with AAC devices
- To establish a Parents support group – Promote wider community use of devices and bespoke for individuals home use.
- Investigate bags for portability
- Extend project to more students
An Evaluation of the use of iPads as Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (Word) (PDF)
 A T.O.B.I. can be a line drawing, scanned photograph, etc., which is cut out in the actual shape or outline of the item it represents.