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Giving the Gift of Communication to Children

The ability to communicate is something many of us take for granted, but for children with brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and degenerative disorders like Leigh’s disease, bridging that gap is a challenging task.

For children with limited body movement or an impaired ability to use verbal communication, everyday tasks like turning on the TV or communicating pain and symptoms to family members and health care providers is difficult. Augmentative alternative communication and assistive technology (AAC/AT) is now opening doors, allowing children to communicate when verbal cues can’t be relied on.  

Thanks to donors of Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation’s Making Spirits Bright holiday giving campaign, this vital technology is now available at the Alvin Buckwold Child Development Program (ABCDP) in Saskatoon. ABCDP is home to one of only two specialized speech language teams in Saskatchewan, serving children from as far away as Fond du Lac and Yorkton.

Funds raised from the Making Spirits Bright campaign helped purchase eye gaze devices that read eye movements like a mouse, allowing children to interact with a computer screen using only their eyes. The funds also purchased head mouse technology, which is similar but uses a reflective sticker placed on the child’s forehead. A rolling station houses the technology, allowing therapists to move the station from room to room to best suit a child’s needs. Children are able to trial the new equipment before their families, schools or charities invest in the expensive equipment for at home use.

Since receiving the assessment equipment, Jill Morgan, Speech Language Pathologist with Alvin Buckworld Child Development Centre, has already assessed several children using these devices. While assessment time varies greatly based on complexity, it takes an average of three or four 90 minute appointments to find the best fit for a child and their family.

Five-year-old Cole using the technology.

“Including this technology in our annual holiday giving campaign was an easy decision,” explained Brynn Boback-Lane, president and CEO of Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation.  “It is so important for Saskatchewan children with communication obstacles to have access to the necessary technology to gain independence, confidence, literacy, and social engagement. We’re grateful to people across Saskatchewan for recognizing that need and answering the call for help.”

The Larson family of Swift Current regularly travels to Saskatoon with their five-year-old son Cole for speech therapy.  In 2013, when Cole was born, he suffered from a lack of blood and oxygen to the brain, resulting in brain damage affecting his lower extremities and speech with an eventual diagnosis of cerebral palsy before the age of two.

Cole started speech therapy at 18 months. By the time he was 4 he had a vocabulary of about 20 to 30 words.  While Cole had communication challenges at home, mom Janelle and dad Derek found a way to understand their son’s gestures, allowing him to communicate. But with Cole starting Kindergarten this year, the worry was that communication would be difficult for people not around him all the time,

Through a referral from Cole’s speech language pathologist in Swift Current, he was able to see a specialist in Saskatoon to determine if he could qualify for an AAC device. Cole first accessed a loaned device through an intensive week long communication group where the children explored various devices.  

The device Cole uses is a high-tech touchscreen tablet with a language program that allows kids to push buttons that represent words. 

Morgan said this technology is ideal for children who have language skills but little to no clear speech. They can use this alternative system to produce words or build sentences.

“What I like about the device is voice power,” said Morgan. “Before we had this technology we were doing the same kind of thing with paper. We would use books with layer upon layer of language in a binder.”

Cole’s mom Janelle said that since Cole has been using the device she has noticed an increase in Cole’s verbal output (or speech), due to the use of repetition in finding words, exploring categories of core words, and hearing the sounds of words from the device.

Cole’s father Derek said they are lucky to have the technology that their son can use to help him learn and communicate without frustration.   “We are fortunate to have organizations and fundraisers who help support kids to give them the best. It will make his life easier and easier for him to keep up with his peers. He is a happier kid and he is not finding it so hard to communicate. We are pretty proud of him.”

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