Arlington native develops urTalker Pro app to help communicate with his autistic child
A new app developed by a Texas couple for their son helps those with autism communicate clearly
Ryan and Jody Farris' son, Nolan, 11, was born three months premature due to a blood clot in Jody's placenta.
As a result, the Houston couple say, Nolan suffers from developmental disorders including cerebral palsy (affecting his respiratory control and motor development and coordination), vision impairment and autism, which limits his interests, causes repetitive behavior and makes communicating with others difficult.
"The day Nolan was born, we were informed he would have challenges," Ryan, a native of Arlington, said. "He was born underweight at 1 pound 1 ounce, and spent the next year in ICU and the following three years on a [breathing tube]. He still to this day is fed through a gastric feeding tube."
After spending the first year of his life in hospitals, Nolan was able to go home, where, thanks to Early Childhood Intervention, home healthcare services and the steadfast love of his parents, he has learned to sit, stand, walk and play.
"Nolan received in-home therapies five or six days a week," Ryan said. "At age 3, the boy who wasn't supposed to walk was walking. At the age of 4, Nolan had managed to get his trach tube out and breathe on his own."
Despite these advances, Nolan, who was named after Texas Rangers pitching legend Nolan Ryan, still had a terribly hard time communicating his wants and needs. He's a smart boy but is almost totally nonverbal.
Fortunately, help in the form of modern technology was on the way.
"One day we saw Nolan changing the music on Jody's iPod," Ryan said. "When we saw that, we thought we could put together a communication device that he could use to scroll through photos of his toys."
This led to Ryan and Judy developing the urTalker Pro, a new augmentative communications app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The Farrises say the urTalker Pro is a better, easier-to-use and much cheaper alternative to such stand-alone electronic communication devices as the DynaVox or the SpringBoard.
The urTalker Pro allows users to communicate phrases through a convenient picture-exchange system, which in Nolan's case lets him scroll through pictures of his toys, his bedroom furniture, his TV, his favorite foods and more. If he's hungry for cereal, for example, he can bring up an image of a cereal box (with corresponding text) and show it to his parents.
A highly versatile app, the urTalker Pro comes with preloaded material, including more than 150 pictures, but it's also equipped with customization tools for adding categories (colors, actions, body parts, feelings) and adding and editing photos. To add a photo, users simply take a picture with the iPad or iPhone that is hosting the urTalker Pro.
Users can also add voice recordings (Ryan has read aloud several of Nolan's favorite books, which Nolan can play back at any time) and Google images of trees, animals, buildings, words, celebrities and virtually anything else.
To employ the urTalker Pro, the user selects from one to 16 grid images and adds any single word or statement to a sentence-builder to communicate or sequence events and ideas. On Nolan's iPad, urTalker Pro is set up in such a way that specific categories turn on at certain times during the day, allowing him to easily communicate relevant information for that activity or time of day.
For example, at a specific time each night, Nolan's iPad defaults to the bedtime category, allowing him to communicate (by touching a specific icon and showing it to Ryan or Jody) that he is ready to take a bath, brush his teeth, change into his pajamas or say goodnight to his two younger sisters. Or, Nolan's parents can show or ask him on the iPad what he needs to do next.
The app has reduced Nolan's stress and frustration levels and increased his happiness and sense of well-being considerably, his parents say.
"The first time Nolan used the app was that 'aha' moment and feeling of pure happiness for all of us," Ryan said. "When we knew he was looking for a toy, we gave him the app to see what would happen. To our surprise and his delight, he picked a toy that we had put away thinking he was no longer interested. Turns out he had been looking for that toy for some time and just didn't have the means to tell us."
Cool for school
The educational benefits are obvious to his parents, as well. "Nolan now has a voice," Ryan said. "This means more than we could have ever imagined. We can now work with Ryan's school and his teachers and therapists on more structured learning, because now he can show what he knows. He now has a way to be evaluated."
Jody added, "Once we realized the value urTalker had for Nolan, we took the initiative to make the app available to everyone."