InnerVoice We believe that creativity, science, and unconventional thinking are keys to providing tools that will improve communication and socialization skills for people on the spectrum. The autism app market is filled with conventional products -- most involve touching an icon, which produces speech. We saw an opportunity to offer a completely different approach: what if we could animate images of the user so that the user could teach him/herself how to communicate or interact socially with others? The answer is we can, and it works! The original concept for InnerVoice stemmed out of my work with non-verbal and emerging verbal students on the autism spectrum. Subsequent iterations of InnerVoice were defined by how these students use InnerVoice/AAC apps combined with best practices and evidence based research.

Problem

Communication is extremely complex, and for individuals on the autism spectrum the act of effective, efficient communication is particularly challenging, due to attention, auditory processing and motor control challenges. Augmentative, alternative communication (AAC) has been available since the 60s with few modifications from the original grid style devices. Now with mobile technology we can do so much more than touch a button to deliver a message. InnerVoice was created from direct, hands-on involvement, trials and observation with end users, their families and educators solving 4 universal problems of traditional AAC apps.

  1. Price – Many families simply cannot afford the high price of communication apps ($150 - $250) and are forced to wait for insurance or school districts to purchase the needed software. This can take in excess of 6 months. To be accessible for everyone the price must be a consideration for families, schools and clinics. Solution – InnerVoice is a fraction of the cost of other AAC apps at $19.99. InnerVoice has a free trial version for users to try before purchasing the premium version.

  2. Engagement – After families or professionals have purchased a communication app, their loved one may not be interested in it. The abandonment rate for communication devices is reported at 75% and higher for individuals on the autism spectrum. Solution -- Individuals on the autism spectrum seem to enjoy looking at pictures of themselves or family members and most have a favorite character (Thomas the Train, Iron Man, Disney Princess, etc.). We incorporated a 3D talking avatar into InnerVoice to draw attention and increase engagement. The 3D avatar delivers the message an individual creates. The avatar can be any person, themselves, a drawing or favorite character. Having the avatar deliver the message creates an environment of fun for the individual and their communication partner(s). Communication should be fun, not a chore!

  3. Complex -- Communication apps are difficult to program and can be cumbersome to use taking too much time to generate a single message. Solution – InnerVoice has an extremely easy user interface that has been designed by observing how students access their devices and apps. Moreover, InnerVoice has designed an interface that will allow the user to more quickly generate a novel message by; creating a history log, quick access to the keyboard, customizing buttons with phrases or words and incorporating smart word prediction into the keyboard (iOS). All designs and features are conceived with both ease of programming and ease of use in mind. It is imperative to quicken the process of generating a message to allow for more natural conversation. (This addresses Paul’s concerns)

  4. Language -- Current communication apps teach language passively. They are designed to easily deliver a pre-determined message; however creating unique messages is complex and time consuming. Solution -- InnerVoice is not only the first communication app on the market with a 3D talking avatar, but the first to incorporate Remote Prompting. By downloading the free InnerVoice Sender app a “teacher” can send/text messages to the “learner” via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and the learner’s avatar will speak the message. This provides enormous opportunity to teach language in context while providing unobtrusive prompts.

More About Remote Prompting --

Remote prompting allows learners to receive a prompt on their mobile device that guides them to the correct response. Using InnerVoice Sender, prompts are sent via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth from the teacher’s device to the learner’s iPad to ensure the child will perform the correct skill and reduce the probability of errors and frustration. Remote Prompting reduces confusing verbal explanations that interfere with the communicative intent or message. The problem of verbal prompts interfering with learning is particularly noticeable when teaching first- and second-person pronouns such as “me,” “my,” “you,” and “your.” The more one explains who “you” and “me” are, the more unclear the definitions become for beginning communicators -- especially those with autism who exhibit echolalia, an automatic verbal repetition of words or speech sounds. Remote prompting is also useful for promoting self-narratives, social greetings, and face-to-face interactions. See videos demonstrating InnerVoice located in supporting information section.

Additionally, the powerful evidence based technique of video self-modeling can be utilized for teaching skills to individuals on the spectrum. When an individual sees themselves performing a behavior (speaking) they are more likely to perform that behavior themselves. Therefore using InnerVoice encourages an individual to speak for themself.

Why InnerVoice Is Unique

The most important aspect of InnerVoice, however, is the avatar-mediated communicative interaction. Currently, many apps or other programs focus on what children with ASD need: sorting skills, sequencing, visual supports, vocabulary- and syntax-building systems. But these types of apps often are missing a key element -- something that makes the app, or therapy approach, intrinsically engaging to a child with autism.

Engagement is an unmet need with many AAC apps. Equally important, engagement is a key part of learning, involving specific neurological structures (nucleus accumbens, dorsal striatum, etc.). By incorporating avatars into an augmentative and assistive communication approach, the device’s screen can encourage people with ASD to attend to faces for social-communicative cues, thus stimulating (in theory) fusiform gyrus activity. Additionally, watching oneself perform motor speech movements can stimulate mirror neuron activity, which is key to imitation. From another perspective, though, the avatars serve as electronic diplomats -- which pique the interest of people with autism and, thus, stimulate dialogue between neurotypical and autistic individuals.

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