A day doesn't go by that I don't see another chipin for an iPad to give a child a voice. If only it were that easy. AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication. In order to utilize an AAC app or speech-generating device there must be a basic understanding of language to augment and communicative intent that can be expressed in an alternate fashion.
SpeechTree is a fully functioning customizable AAC app from Global Augmentative Communication Innovators (GACI) that includes a learning program to give speech-delayed children the prerequisite skills necessary to succeed with AAC.
SpeechTree provides a foundation for AAC use by concentrating first on building receptive language through a first of its kind interactive learning program that uses principles of applied behavior analysis. Everyone wishes they could hand a nonverbal child an iPad and have the child express unimaginable intelligence just like in the YouTube video. That’s unlikely. AAC use takes a lot of practice and often the expert assistance of a trained SLP. SpeechTree aims to simplify the process so parents, teachers and therapists without extensive AAC experience can help facilitate its use.
Because SpeechTree is a combination of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) program and AAC, its home screen does not look like other AAC apps. It features a tree with leaves for lessons, communicate and data. The SpeechTree website has manuals downloadable in pdf for both the AAC part of the app and the ABA part. These are handy references and will give an excellent overview of included features and how to navigate beyond what I can cover in this review. The lessons tab takes one to a screen listing categories like foods, animals, activities, body parts and clothing. All AAC programs of any sophistication rely on these type categories for organizing vocabulary so knowing an apple is a food and a pig is an animal is necessary to navigate an AAC app independently.
Each lesson has three parts: teaching, receptive and expressive. Teaching is a series of flashcards that name the item as each is presented. Receptive asks the student to identify a named object from a field of six. If an incorrect response is given, the field narrows to four. Expressive shows a picture and the student is asked, “Tell me what this is?” Yes, I tried to speak into the iPad’s microphone until I remembered in AAC one speaks by tapping an icon. Once a picture from a field of eight is selected, it goes in the message window. Tapping the window causes the words in it to be spoken. A correct choice gets positive reinforcement like "terrific" or "super." Incorrect responses narrow the field for a second chance to answer the question.
A variety of settings are available for lessons. These can be adjusted in a password-protected menu accessible from the home screen. Animations, music, labels and a time limit for responding can be on or off. Animations are fun for reinforcement and include shooting stars for correct responses and spinning pictures. Settings can be customized for multiple students and saved, which is a fantastic timesaver for teachers and therapists.
Data is generated for each eight question lesson completed. The data reporting is the best and most comprehensive I have seen in any app. Each session is represented in a bar graph with percentages for correct responses on first and second attempts. Individual sessions can be viewed in more detail with actual incorrect choices identified. These detailed reports can be printed or emailed from within the app. There is even a space for notes.
The AAC Portion of SpeechTree looks to have cherry-picked the best elements from a number of older more established AAC apps. It forgoes SymbolStix for more realistic photos like those in One Voice. The message window includes the word and the picture like Proloquo does. Core and high frequency words are accessed from an always visible tab on the top of the screen called Quick Words. Next to Quick Words are Quick Thoughts (Quick Fires in Dynavox devices) which include social greetings and courtesies as well as the all important “I have to go to the bathroom.” Twelve phrases are presented per page with additional phrases seen by scrolling left to right. Scrolling is easier than hitting a back or next button, but it may take some getting used to if transitioning from another system.
One thing SpeechTree does really well is keeping users from getting lost in layer upon layer of menus. The leftmost button under the speech window identifies which category is displayed at all times. Below it is an up and down scrolling bar of starters such as I am, he is, and I see. These like all categories and individual squares can be customized to account for slang or cultural variances. So for instance Brits can change I like to I fancy. Editing is straightforward and includes the ability to use one’s own photos or access the thousands of included images.
SpeechTree doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some full-featured AAC apps. Text to speech lacks word prediction; however, as words are typed, symbols will be inserted automatically if they are in the Speechtree library. Verb conjugation and other grammar engine functions are not included. Switch access and scanning are not supported. These missing elements are of little significance, however, if this app is viewed as a first AAC app.
If my own ASD son was four and I wasn’t 6 years into our own AAC journey, I would be using SpeechTree. The lessons would have saved me hundreds of dollars in ABA costs and avoided a lot of frustration in how to get started. The only real negative I see other than cost is a need to bypass the tree once lessons aren’t being used so that conversation can begin quickly. $170 is at the high end for AAC, but given that the learning program is worth around $40 on its own, the cost is in line. This app will be a godsend for many families but whether it is right for your child is a matter that should be discussed with an SLP or AT specialist who knows your child.
Jill Goodman is a sometime technology attorney and special education advocate who is fortunate to have 5 SLPs and 3 ABA therapists among her Facebook friends.