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Creator/Inventor Bick Pratt

Creator/Inventor Bick Pratt

Michael Pratt was born with Nager Syndrome – an extremely rare and serious congenital defect. His dad, Bick, has devoted his time and energy to meeting Michaels’s complex needs and to helping him fit into a world made for “normal” people. Bick and Michael’s story is not about autism, per se. It is, however, a story that anyone who cares for a loved one with autism can appreciate. It is a story about drawing on every resource available to help a special needs child enjoy life to the fullest extent possible. Furthermore, Bick’s success in developing a tool to help Michael communicate has special relevance to the autism community.

The Challenge to Get Creative
Finding a way for Michael to express himself has occupied Bick’s days and nights for two long years. “November 26, 2008 was my start date, indelibly marked in my brain,” says Bick. It’s been relentless since that day.” The early AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices were expensive, impersonal, awkward and difficult to program — and they made Michael feel more different than he already was. They also lacked portability, and were back at the manufacturer’s for repair most of the time. The bottom line was that Michael refused to use them and retreated deeper into his isolation.

When Bick saw the recent advances in touch-screen technology and mobile devices, such as the iPod touch and iPhone, he had hope for the first time. Finally, here was a way to provide personalized content in a cost-effective, reliable and more portable AAC device. He teamed up with professional American sign language (ASL) educators, developers and school-based AAC experts, and together they created an educational device that brought AAC out of the classroom and into the world. They decided to call it MyTalk.

For Michael, this new tool has meant an end to the isolation, frustration, disengagement, resignation and tension that imprisons those without the ability to communicate. It has helped put an end to the stigma that accompanied earlier devices, and to Michael’s resistance. “Michael loves using his MyTalk – and his friends and classmates think it’s cool,” says Bick. Michael and his dad love making the boards and messages together. MyTalk has connected Michael to his world, and he and Bick now work together to help share their solution with others who have expressive language challenges.

MyTalk in Action
Michael decided to call his brother Kevin to let him know that he and Bick went to McDonald’s for lunch. He pointed to the cell in the board to tell Kevin he ordered a cheeseburger (photo left). The center image shows how Mike uses his MyTalk to place an order at George’s Coney Island, a favorite dinner spot. During a prior visit to George’s, Bick had taken a picture of a spaghetti dinner using Mike’s iPhone and MyTalk, then added audio to specify Michael’s choice. When they arrived at George’s on their next visit (photo right) their waitress had no doubt that Mike wanted spaghetti — and he had placed the order by himself.

Our Interview with Bick

AWE: What was the inspiration for my talk tools?
BP: The smile of a pretty girl who looked directly in Michael’s eyes and said, ‘That’s cool; I got it!’ That exchange really happened, and those are the exact words. So the inspiration is to provide momentary escapes from the isolation our kids endure by helping the general population engage with them. From the parent or caretaker’s perspective, the inspiration was to provide a tool that is so easy to use that updating would become a normal part of our day-to-day routine. We wanted to provide content so rich, so current and so relevant to kids’ lives that they can break through the isolation, engaging with the general population on a more routine and expanding basis.

AWE: What kinds of people are using MyTalk?
BP: We have customers all over the world dealing with challenges from TBI (traumatic brain injury) to stroke, with very strong support among the autism community. There are too many challenges to list, but I’d like to encourage everyone with an expressive language challenge (or their caretakers) to download the free version just to see if it helps. If it doesn’t, we don’t want them to purchase MyTalk. The free app is the way to be sure.

AWE: How much did you know about autism before you developed your product?
BP: I can’t stress enough how little I know about so many of the communities we serve. I start all presentations with the qualifications about how little I know. My intent is not to be self-demeaning, but to stress that I’m here to explain and demonstrate my situation and our product so that we can unleash the creativity, knowledge and connection to those we support by giving them a tool that takes the focus off the tool and puts it on your creativity. My knowledge of the spectrum has increased dramatically through dialogue with parents and professionals, but I’m the first to admit I’ve seen only the tip of their iceberg.

AWE: Do you have any general advice for parents of special needs children?
BP: Yes. First, consider the source. I consider myself as modestly successful in the parenting of a special needs kid. I built a tool that turned our relationship around. In November of 2008, after six months of a malfunctioning device and devoid of meaningful communication during a turbulent family time, Michael would give me the finger whenever he saw me. Today we are very close. It’s amazing what a little communication can do. So I consider these as reminders to myself:

  1. Be aggressive in your goals, yet realistic in your expectations.
  2. Relish the little victories and try to build on them.
  3. Get help if you need it. Without communication there is frustration. Helen Keller was called wild and unruly. How would any of us react if every thought was bottled up inside? In situations of tension and frustration, get help, wherever you can find it.
  4. Don’t get discouraged and disengaged as life goes on. You are the only ones who are likely to share the passion to see your child experience joy. Find ways to stay engaged. Try our tool. I sit with Mike once each week for him to give me stuff to add to MyTalk. Usually it’s just pictures, but I don’t care. We spend 20 or 30 minutes together using MyTalk as the focus of our time together. He’s showing me what’s important to him.

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Ed. Note: Awe in Autism does not promote any specific products, services, treatments or therapies, and this article is not an endorsement of any of the above. We have chosen to publish this article because we believe it offers broader insight that may be useful to many of our site visitors, and because its emphasis on creativity is consistent with our mission and purpose.