• What was the inspiration for AACORN AAC?
Wayne Whatford (Founder & Creator): In 2006 my eldest daughter Jessica was born with a rare cranial condition (Metopic Craniocynostosis) that if left untreated would almost certainly have resulted in long-term developmental issues. Thankfully where we live we have access to one of the best children’s hospitals in the world and her condition was able to be addressed via a (not insignificant) surgical procedure. Scary at the time for us as first time parents - but it’s so true that no matter how bad you think you have it, when you are at the childrens hospital you meet families and hear stories that make you realise how lucky you really are. We always said if we could ever give anything back we would and never thought much more about how, until many years later i started a company creating apps and after discovering the current state of assistive technology decided to see what we could do to improve things for children and their families.
Oh and we’re happy to report seven years on Jessica is better than fine - and actually provides one of the voices available in aacorn :)
• How is AACORN different from the hundreds of other AAC apps and devices?
Firstly I should say in creating aacorn our goal was not to supplant any of the tools available to help children today. Far from it. We saw or thought we saw a serious need for improvement in certain areas and were excited at the possibility of being able to address these. But given the complex issues we're talking about and the fact that every child is unique with very different needs there is no one-size fits all approach. Hopefully we're providing another piece to the puzzle and one more tool parents, educators and therapists can have at their disposal as and where it can help most.
Working closely with a lot of parents, educators and speech professionals, our research indicated that for far too many children with conditions that make speech difficult, using todays assistive communications technology could very often be a time consuming, frustrating and sometimes discouraging experience for the child and his/her family.
Our suspicion was that for many children - especially those who are pre-literate or have more severe cognitive issues - using systems that require hunting and pecking through grids and folders while certainly very helpful for lots of adults is far from ideal for children - not just because the words are hard to find, but because quite often many children don’t even know what they are looking for!
Our response was to try to create an alternative that instead focuses on the cognitive abilities and needs of each individual child as a starting point. We designed a radically different user interface around visual engagement and the way children interact with the iPad, as well as giving careful thought to shapes and positions to make things accessible for little hands, and interactive lessons for growing brains. But perhaps the biggest break-through can be found in the artificial intelligence we've developed that enables aacorn to 'learn' to anticipate your childs needs and to automatically present words as and when they are needed! It is the first example of such an approach being used to assist children with autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, apraxia, childhood MS, developmentally delayed speech and/or language learning issues, and when combined all of these features result in a significant improvement in the accuracy and speed with which many children can express themselves.
• How does the Predictive aspect work?
Out of the box aacorn is like a new-born, big on potential but something of a blank canvas waiting for you to imprint your childs communication style on it. So if you fire it up and try to say 'I love Mom' for example and it isn't immediately offering you Mom as an option, you click the lil + symbol to add it and you have basically modeled and taught the app hey "love and Mom" go together. The very next time a child (with or without help depending on their needs) starts a sentence or phrase using “I” the word ‘love’ will appear as an option (along with any others you’ve taught it). These word tree branches can be tapped and spoken or not tapped. What you choose takes you down different paths - but and this is v.important- they aren’t arbitrary or random they reflect the information you have fed it. It truly is a case of the more you use aacorn the smarter it becomes and so the more useful, which is incredibly exciting when you think about it because where it’ll take a child in a month, 6 months, 2 years is something even we don’t know at this point.
What we do know is that because aacorn 'learns', the magic is in making the connections between words - kind of like a neural network. Working in this fashion - without needing to worry about where you place words or spending hours making pre-canned phrases - with practice we've seen kids who previously struggled to build and speak 2-3 word phrases using alternate devices and software communicate the same thing in a third of the time. Similarly others are able to expand their vocab to 8+ word sentences. In short we’re substituting the time you’d perhaps otherwise spend setting up an AAC app (before you even get to making sentences) and using that time to model desired behaviors and teach a communication style of your choosing.
• Did you work with speech therapists/ SLPs, or just intuit all this on your own?
It all really started with a lot of learning about the challenges non-verbal and developmentally delayed children face in their daily lives and social interactions by talking with parents of children with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome and other conditions that aren’t as well publicised, to see what they felt they needed and who might benefit most.
We were very blinkered to other apps at the outset - because for better or worse I had this idea of a predictive solution for real-time fluid speech and how that could empower kids - if it was even possible. At that stage and even today it seemed like the App Store contained a zillion flashcard apps and AAC apps we felt were originally designed for adults. Two kinds of apps at either end of the spectrum - either quite basic or very powerful (but difficult for me to use let alone a young child who can't spell or type).
Speech and Language Pathologists across the US, UK and Australia, along with various fantastic independent speech therapists and teachers were invaluable in offering advice on whether they thought we were on the right track and contributed great suggestions for added features we should include.
• Did you do any usability testing with kids?
My own 2 guinea pigs of course :) - but yes a lot! The real gap and need we saw was that the more powerful aac apps really to my mind were not designed specifically for children - they were designed for adults and requirea degree of motor skills and mental ability that is far in excess of what young children or children with developmental or cognitive issues could be reasonably expected to have. So we took what we thought we knew about engagement -having made some best-selling apps over the last 5 years - and making things compelling from my design background, and feedback from the Murdoch Childrens regarding early childhood development, to make something that was meant for little hands and developing brains.
On that, I really strongly suspected that the hunting and pecking required in other apps might actually be holding many kids back - therapists and parents have to spend so much time setting things up in a way that words can easily be found because a grid and folders just make it so hard to remember where things are. And at the same time most apps totally disregard the fact that very often non-verbal children could also have cognitive issues that make it more difficult for them to even know 'which' words they actually want to say.
So we were testing the usablity of course but more so the crazy idea we had of how much faster could children communicate if we could have the words they want automatically appear in front of them when they need them and guide them along a path.
• What kind of results are you seeing?
It is very early days and of course every child has very specific needs and so there is no one size fits all approach, but encouragingly we’ve seen many children with experience using other AAC apps and devices communicate around 3x faster than with alternative assistive speech devices or apps - and kids who haven’t used AAC apps or devices up to 10x faster. This might seem impossible but remember the time we're concerned about is the time needed to both BUILD AND SPEAK sentences - from scratch! One of the reasons why aacorn is so much quicker is because to a large degree we’ve removed the need to hunt and peck for words, and we're not basing our times on pre-saved or already created sentences.
I hasten to add that while we believe aacorn has great potential to help many children families should always seek advice in evaluating all their options, and as with any AAC software its success or otherwise is in large part dependant on a child having a supportive environment with a parent, caretaker or therapist who can work with them using the software as part of an overall language development strategy.
• What ages would work best with aacorn?
That was a massive decision at the outset - what age are we targetting and whether age was even relevant.
I’ve seen approaches where the first thing some apps do is try and peg what the childs ability is and depending on the answers you input the user then gets basic, medium or advanced functions. Again just my opinon but i kind of wondered if that might in some way be limiting many children? They are all so different yet it felt like attaching labels. We felt if we went with a very open ended approach that could adjust on the fly to each childs abilities - and knowing they wouldn’t be doing this in isolation, that success is always dependent on a good family support structure - then we could arrive at a place where it’ll be as easy for kids to type a two word phrase like ‘want Apple’ as it is more complex senstences like ‘Excuse me, I want an apple please’.
With the unique concepts we've imbedded in aacorn and in particular the 'word tree' it’s proving to be the case. Model the sentence structure one time for a child and it’s added to the knowledge base in the app - in a very real sense it is moving AAC beyond tapping buttons that speak to expanded vocab and actually teaching language!
Interestingly the possible uses for aacorn with kids who aren’t non-verbal but who are language delayed is the thing that has a lot of speechies we talk to the most excited.
• Do you expect individuals to “outgrow” this AAC app, or continue to use it throughout their lives?
Another frustration expressed to us was that often other aac apps aren’t very customisable and those that are often require additional apps for editing photos on a mac/pc, or buying extra symbols or words, so that eventually a child will likely outgrow them. That is far from ideal - to say nothing of the cost to parents.
So there is a whole backend to aacorn that lets you cutomise almost everything! Create new words, use the camera to take pics, draw sketches, even record audio - maybe even in other languages.
We wanted to make it as useful as possible but also I think you’re pouring your communication style and vocab into it and investing a lot of time and money so it should grow with the child.
We’ll even be revisiting the kids who lent their voices (mine included :) and re-recording them as they get older.
• What kind of Help / Support is available for users?
As previously mentioned we wanted to make sure aacorn was not just the most powerful assistive communications app for children, but also the easiest to learn and use. To achieve that we spent months creating very detailed animated tutorials (featuring our flying talking mascot ‘Buddy the Robot’) that parents/therapists and children journey through together learning as they go.
On top of this we’re adding instructional videos which can be accessed online via the app and we employ full time staff to respond to any enquiries via email or even phone/skype calls where needed.
• What does AACORN stand for?
Thinking about children and their potential, I like the analogy of little seeds growing into big tree’s, and of course it’s a play on AAC and the idea of our word 'tree'. Plus ‘acorn’ was taken :)
• Availability and Pricing.
Available for the iPad and priced as affordably as we can do given the cost to build such a project over 3 years, but roughly 1/2 that charged by our competitors.
• Just how much of an improvement is aacorn over the older grid-based AAC systems?
Watch the following short video :)