Bottom Line: Rudimentary AAC app that offers surprisingly limited options even for entry level communication needs. Better options exist for the same money or less.
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When I heard there was a new AAC app called Words on Wheels - An App for Special Needs Children with Autism and Other Speech Delays, I was intrigued. Words on wheels brought to mind cherry picker wheels or a slot machine and the ability to build sentences by spinning to select a noun, verb and object. That sounded good and a breath of fresh air from the usual 6x4 grids common to most AAC apps. Unfortunately, my vision based solely on the app's name would be more functional and innovative than the format put forward by the app's developer Excel Heritage Group.
Words on Wheels comes with 50 pre-loaded images which are arranged in five rows each of which has 10 images. Fifty words is a very limited vocabulary even for a nonverbal child. People alone could use up ten of the images if you count immediate family, teachers and therapists. Users have the option to add their own images to each row, but only five extras come with the app. Additional word space must be bought through in-app purchases.
Buying additional word space is the wrong model for an AAC app. Communication is a critical activity of daily living. It's not the time to cut corners. It's okay to buy coins as needed in a game but charging for more words when there is no included library, no choice of voices, and even no instructions dooms the app for school use and really makes no sense. Space does not have additional costs for the developer. If you were buying a library of images like Symbolstix, then I could see charging a fee, but buying the right to add images 25 at a time? It's a format used in games which may account for the developer using it since Excel Heritage Group describes itself as an indie gaming company.
You should plan on buying at least another 25 words ($2.99) because the included icons are cartoon-like and it's not always obvious what they mean. A picture of a slice of cake represents dessert and a fork and spoon wheel says "utensils" when activated. These may be fine as categories but they don't really help with expressive intent. Asking for dessert is non-specific and doesn't convey if the child wants cake, cookie or ice cream. I may ask a waitress for utensils, but even my ASD apraxic 10 year old AAC user says spoon or foke (fork).
This AAC app does not have dynamic display or linked pages. There is no way to categorize language so if you added another 50 images you have no way to organize them beyond the existing setup which is:
- Line 1- family members and body parts
- Line 2 - actions and routines
- Line 3 - things and places. Things are generic categories like toys or clothes
- Line 4 - eat, drink and then cutlery, plate, and food categories like chips for snack and cake for dessert.
- Line 5 - feelings, stop, hurting and no yelling and no biting. I might say those phrases to an autistic child, but they are not a priority for the child's own expressive language.
Adding images is relatively easy, but they can only go at the end of a strip unless you erase existing images. So additional family members or key people in the child's life have to follow body parts. Also, if you modify a wheel there is no means to reset it to the default later.
I could make the phrases "I eat sandwich" and "mom read book" using the provided vocabulary. Expressing anything beyond that was difficult since "I want" is not among the pre-programmed language. Manding is a huge part of verbal behavior instruction and expressive language so the absence of a basic means to request is unusual. The app's iTunes description says it can be used as part of a child's ABA therapy, but neither the app nor its website gives directions on how to implement its use.
Excel Heritage Group has a skeleton website and Facebook page for the app which include little extra information. The app has an info wheel on the home screen but it leads to a made by Hallmark type video rather any substantive help. In it, a boy with perfect eye contact tries talking, but his classmates don't understand him. His parents buy him an iPad, he smiles and everybody lives happily ever after. If only it was that easy. The parent's editing screen which thankfully is password protected also has an i wheel that leads to a narrated video which tells parents to give your child the proper wheels to drive on the highway of life. It's beyond cheesy and ignores the reality that it takes far more than buying an iPad to foster meaningful communication in an autistic individual.
I'm not an SLP, but I have used and reviewed numerous AAC and text to speech apps. My son has been an AAC user for six years and I regularly attend the assistive technology industry trade show. I should probably leave it at that but based on my experience with other AAC apps and SGDs, my list of criticisms for Words on Wheels also includes:
- No text on icons so no promotion of literacy.
- Up and down sentence window goes against teaching left to right for reading.
- The emotions icons are poorly rendered. The eyes and hair on the boy never change and those with autism don't distinguish nonverbal expression under the best of circumstances.
- Very cluttered looking, visually distracting interface with small pictures.
- The photo edit tool crops in a rectangle but the picture goes in a circle and gets chopped off.
- Facebook, Twitter and iTunes store links are okay for fluent AAC users but relatively useless for someone with a 50 word vocabulary.
- No reason to believe an SLP was consulted in the development of the app.
- No known methodology followed whether LAMP, PODD, or Fitzgerald Key.
If parents add images and record their voice, it won't match the voice used for the existing images and they will oddly feel like they are conversing with themselves as their child will speak using his parents' voices.
I welcome all the help I can get with improving my child's outcome, but slapping a "great for autism" label on something doesn't make it so. This format may work for some, but I would carefully evaluate all options before choosing it. Alexicom Elements Core 280 and Alexicom Child Home, So Much 2 Say - Picture Communication and Grace Picture Exchange for Nonverbal People are worth considering and are similarly priced. The developer is presently donating a portion of proceeds to benefit Down Syndrome and Autism charities which is noteworthy and appreciated.
Jill Goodman looks forward to ATIA Orlando 2013 and seeing what's new in Assistive Technology. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.