Autism silenced Joshua Fant when he was just 18 months old, but thanks to new technology, he’s now able to communicate with his family, friends, and teachers, again.
When Joshua was a toddler, his mother, Michele, says he was not making direct eye contact, he preferred to be alone, and gradually stopped speaking.
Since then, Joshua, now 16, has used physical means to communicate his needs. He will pull his mom, dad, or little sisters to the refrigerator, outside, to the television or to wherever or whatever else he wants. It gets the point across, but expressing preference is a guessing game.
The family then supplies option after option, until Joshua sees what he wants.
It’s tiring, and as Joshua’s little sister CJ says, at times the excited or urgent pulling can be a little painful.
Social interaction can be stressful for the family, as well. Middle sister, Alyssa, says she often finds herself educating perfect strangers about autism, after tense or embarrassing moments with Joshua.
“Sometimes,” she says, “when we got to a public place like a park or a swimming pool, people will go up to him and we have to tell them that he’s autistic, and there’s really nothing we can do about that. And there’s no way we can change that.”
Mary Ann Ellis is Joshua’s Speech Language Pathologist with Amarillo ISD, she agrees that social situations are particularly difficult for him.
“He’s always been one who preferred to be by himself and I imagine that communication is part of that. When you can’t express yourself it’s hard to be around people,” Ellis said.
The autism they cannot change, but one thing, they can.
It’s a device they call the Talker, and it has already changed the Fant’s lives.
The Talker is a tablet, a bit larger than an iPad, that only a few people in the world have been given the opportunity to use.
Ellis nominated Joshua for a pilot program through a company called LAMP Words for Life. On it’s website, LAMP Words for Life is described as meant to meet the communication needs of children with autism. LAMP stands for Language Acquisition through Motor Planning,
Ellis explains, “Any time Joshua wants to access certain words, he doesn’t even have to look. He’s learned, it’s right there, [she uses the tablet to show the word’s certain place] it’s always the same. In the same way when we’re young and learn to say words, there’s a motor plan in our mouth when we say it, we hear it, something happens and that’s how we make connections. And now, Joshua is able to do that with this device.”
The device is much like a keyboard. The words are always on the same page of the app, and always on the same square in the raised grid that’s attached to the stop of the screen.
“I think it makes him feel powerful,” Michele says.
Joshua has been using the Talker since just before spring break back in March. He and his parents and teachers are adding five words per week to the device, and Michele says they have made more gains in communication in just those few weeks, than they ever have before.
Ellis explains, “The whole idea and what we’re looking for Joshua is what we call a Spontaneous Novel Utterance. So, he’s saying what he wants to say when he wants to say it.”
That progress is steady, which makes the excitement bittersweet.
“There are just so many words right now that I’m wanting him to be able to say. I just can’t wait until we get to that point. I just don’t want to overwhelm him. I want him to take it one step at a time, because if you’re learning to play piano for example, you are not going to start with Beethoven,” Michele says.
Those words he is able to say so far, his dad says, have been nothing short of remarkable.
“What is remarkable is hearing him speak, in a sense.” Chris says.
The robotic and somewhat child-like voice is just a representation of what Joshua might actually sound like.
“Because, we haven’t heard him speak since he was… maybe three?” he checks to make sure his timeline is correct with his wife. She corrects him that it was about 14-months before that. “And,” Chris continues “he didn’t even really use words communicatively very well.”
Now that Joshua is gaining access to more words, his family and teachers are excited to see what may open up to him in the world.
“Him being able to express his ideas, his thoughts, actions he wants to happen and ideas, it’s not just asking for a cookie, or saying ‘I like you.’ One of my big goals for him is to express when he does not like something, because right now when he doesn’t like something he may just use a behavior or something to let us know that so we’re hoping when he has a way to say ‘not like’ or ‘not want’ or ‘not that but this’ or ‘I want something different’ or ‘I like something different,’ he’ll have ways to express what he’s really thinking.” Ellis says.
Joshua is a freshman at Amarillo High School, and his teachers say he’s beginning to interact with them differently, as well.
Ellis says, “We thought a lot of what he had were sensory needs, and now we’re starting to think maybe he’s bored. Maybe he needs a whole lot more. Maybe he needs the chance to develop interests, maybe we’re not keeping him busy enough maybe we need to keep opening up his world and teaching him new things and helping him learn as much as he wants to about anything.”
Michele knows that at five words a week, it’ll take some time, but she knows the possibilities now that he can communicate, are endless.
“We know that we want him to be able to communicate and increase in those communication skills. And really from there, who knows where he can go. If those communication skills increase enough he could do any number of things but it’s hard for us to see any of those right now. But I do know that I would like for him to contribute to society,” Michele says, “To be happy, to have family relationships, just to be a part, to be included, those are the most important things for us.”
Getting to know Joshua what Chris is most looking forward to.
“I hope I can get to know him, a lot better, because so much of him is hidden from us.”
“I hope I can get to know him, a lot better, because so much of him is hidden from us. I’m hoping he will flourish in his communication and we can get to know who he really is. Because right now its very hard to see what potential he has because right now it doesn’t come out. It’s very hard to say what’s in there, what does he understand? Because it doesn’t come out.” Chris says, “Every once in a while it will come out and we’ll realize wow he understands that, because we’ll be talking and laughing and he’ll laugh, too. What does he pick up on, what’s in there, and I’m excited to get to know him in ways I never have before.”