Studies underway to help children, adults overcome communications obstacles

Marjorie S. Miller
October 31, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Earlier this year Penn State’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) was awarded a grant by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research to enhance communication and improve outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication. In collaboration with Oregon Health and Science University, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, and InvoTek, the grant will be used for a Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (RERC on AAC). Throughout the next few years, the funds will fuel a variety of research projects both on University Park’s campus and across the country.

Now, seven of the research and development projects are underway.

The grant

The grant, which provides approximately $5 million of funding over a five-year period, consists of four components: research, development, training and dissemination, said PI Janice Light, who holds the Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children’s Communicative Competence. David McNaughton, professor of special education, will lead the training and dissemination activities.

“We were the only Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center funded on Rehabilitation Strategies, Techniques and Interventions,” Light said. “We are really excited about the research, development, training and dissemination activities that we have planned and the new collaborations that we will be building, both in house at Penn State with the College of Engineering and the College of Information Sciences and Technology, as well as nationwide with other leading research centers. This is an incredible opportunity to advance the field and improve outcomes for children and adults with the most complex communication needs.”

The grant will focus on enhancing communication and improving outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication (e.g., signs, communication books, speech generating devices, mobile technologies), including, but not limited to, individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and degenerative neurological disorders such as ALS.

“Our overall mission is to try to enhance communication and improve quality of life,” Light said. “We would argue communication is really the essence of all of our lives and is the key to successful participation in society.”

“There are a lot of stakeholders who will benefit,” Light said. “The grant is all about those who have unique needs, and our goal is to enhance the quality of life for them.”

“The grant will provide a richness of opportunities for Penn State students from various disciplines to conduct research, develop cutting-edge technologies, and learn evidence-based practices in rehabilitation,” she said.

Making a difference at home and across the board

Oct. 1 was the kickoff for these projects, Light explained, and while they all have been initiated, researchers are in the very beginning stages.

“We have five years of work (ahead),” she said.

The first of the projects, Light explained, examines brain computer interface, and focuses primarily on individuals who have minimal movement, whether from a brain stem stroke or ALS. The goal of this particular project, which is being led by Melanie Fried-Oken at Oregon Health and Science University, is to develop improved ways for these individuals to access and control computers to talk, work and conduct other activities.

Essentially, brain computer interfaces function by placing electrodes on the user’s head, and letting the brain response guide and control the computer.

“That kind of technology is in early development stages, but it offers exciting possibilities for individuals who are ‘locked in’ and are unable to communicate” Light said.

The next of the projects, which is being done at the University Park campus and is spearheaded by Light and McNaughton in conjunction with InvoTek, focuses on working with individuals with disabilities who are nonliterate.

The idea behind the project is to develop computer-based systems to enhance literary skills, Light said.

Many of these individuals, she explained, communicate using pictures or images. Some may be children and some may be older people who never learned to read. This new technology would help turn images into written words in order to enhance the communication skills of these individuals.

This project, Light said, involves in-depth evaluation of the effects of this innovative technology on literacy and communication skills.

The third of the projects investigates the design of computer displays, and the demands of using different types of displays through eye tracking technology, Light said.

Specifically, the project examines how content should be laid out on a computer screen, such as vertically or horizontally, to capture the attention of the user.

Children with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, and adults with traumatic brain injury (TBI) or aphasia resulting from a stroke, are the primary focus, Light said. The goal of the project is to look at how computer displays should be designed to maximize performance of the individual.

This particular project, she said, is being undertaken by Light and Krista Wilkinson at University Park’s campus, in collaboration with Susan Fager and David Beukelman at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

Project No. 4, a collaboration between InvoTek, Madonna, and Penn State, examines multi-modal access issues, Light said, or alternate technology access for individuals who can’t use their hands to type.

Some examples of alternate access might include eye gaze technology to direct the computer, head tracking to move the cursor, vocalization or gestures, Light said.

“This project will look at combining multiple ways to control the computer,” she said.

Using just one method, such as eye gaze, can be tiring for an individual, Light explained, so it’s important to utilize technology that supports multimodal access to enhance both accuracy and efficiency of computer use.

Another project underway at Penn State in collaboration with Tom Jakobs at InvoTek, Light said, studies the use of video to enhance communication. Current AAC systems use static pictures to support communication, but not video.

“If you think about it, life is very dynamic,” Light said. Video allows us to capture the dynamic flow of activities; this project will investigate how to infuse communication supports into this medium.

The sixth project delves into the development  of a “smart prediction system,” Light said, which can best be compared to the “suggested words” that pop up when using text messaging.

Many individuals who rely on augmentative and alternative communication are able to spell and type, but at slow rates. This project will look at ways to use context to improve and enhance the prediction model to help users better communicate, Light said.

This project is being done by InvoTek and Oregon Health and Science University.

The seventh of the projects, spearheaded by Oregon Health and Science University, studies a wide range of assistive technologies, which all have different learning demands for the user. The goal is to try to ensure that education and rehabilitation professionals select systems that best meet the specific needs of the user, Light explained.

“(We are) looking at evaluating current technology to assess cognitive processing demands,” she said. "Ultimately, we hope to develop a tool clinicians can use to determine which method of communication is appropriate for their particular client."

For more information about AAC research, development and training activities, visit

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Last Updated October 31, 2014