U.S. researchers have been awarded a $2.7 million grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how technology can potentially boost language therapy for children with severe speech disorders, including those with cerebral palsy (CP).
The study will be led by researchers at the University of Central Florida and the University of New Mexico, who will investigate the level of instruction needed for children with speech disorders to be able to effectively learn how to use already-existing apps that assist users in speaking.
Apps on the market now allow users to select symbols in a sequential order to represent the words the user wants to communicate. The app can then say the sentence for the user.
“If a young child with unintelligible speech, or no speech at all, comes up to you with an iPad and starts speaking to you in full sentences, this creates a big mind shift about what that child is truly capable of doing,” lead researcher Cathy Binger, PhD, a UNM associate professor of speech and hearing sciences, said in a press release.
However, there are still few evidence-based training options available to teach children with speech disorders how to efficiently use these apps to communicate.
“This grant is the culmination of many years of work and a lot of pilot data showing that it is possible to teach children to use picture symbol-based apps to communicate in grammatically accurate phrases and sentences,” said Jennifer Kent-Walsh, PhD, a UCF professor of communication sciences and disorders who is also leading the research.
Through this study, Kent-Walsh and Binger hope to better understand how these apps can be used to assist in the development of children with cerebral palsy or other conditions resulting in speech impairments.
The Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation estimates that 1 in 4 people with cerebral palsy cannot talk. The condition can affect a child’s ability to coordinate the muscles around the mouth and tongue that are used to speak. The coordinated breathing necessary to support speech can also be affected.
“When children can’t use their speech to communicate effectively, they often get frustrated and they may act out or shut down,” Binger said. “It can lead to all kinds of problems, like social issues and poor communication with family members. If these children are not provided with other ways to help them communicate, they also can end up with educational placements that may be inappropriate.”
The NIH-supported study (NIH R01DC016321) will focus on children of preschool age — 3 and 4 years old — who have severe speech impairments.
Families participating in the study will receive basic instruction on how to use the communication app, and some participants will receive enhanced intervention sessions, intended to teach the children how to “speak” through the app.
Results from both groups will then be compared to determine if the enhanced sessions had a positive effect on the patients’ ability to communicate.
“We are thrilled to have come to a point where we are ready to roll out this intervention on a larger scale and track the communication performance of many children across states,” Kent-Walsh said.
Researchers hope that by giving participants the necessary technology and assistance to more effectively communicate, these children will be better equipped to take advantage of some of the same educational and social opportunities as their peers.