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January 2011



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By Denise Sautters
Posted Mar 08, 2010 @ 02:34 PM

Most of us take speaking skills for granted. For some, learning to communicate is hard-earned.

In his nine years, Cole Bennett hasn’t been able to verbalize his thoughts. But he is learning now, thanks to a speech-generating device.

“It is a slow process,” said his mother, Christine Bennett. “But we are seeing progress.”

Cole has been diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy. He has uncontrolled seizures with a specific seizure pattern. And, his mother said, he is autistic and noncommunicative.

He is one of a handful of students at Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities’ Southgate School learning to communicate with Tobii Assistive Technology.

“When I heard about this, I was very skeptical, because having a child with special needs, you hear the best and the worst,” said Bennett. “When you hear these wonderful things, you think, ‘Oh come on, how can this be?’ ”

Eye tracking

The technology uses eye tracking, also known as eye gazing, to allow the user to visually select on the computer screen what he or she wants to say or have.

The eye-tracking concept is more than 100 years old, but its use in helping communicatively challenged people is in its infancy.

The main challenges facing eye tracking are:

– Developing the right solutions for solving specific problems.

– Calibrating sensors properly.

– Determining how users interact with the technology. Ideally, they should be able to look away from the device without having to recalibrate the equipment.

Bennett first watched her son work on something simple: Choosing between two toys.

“Cole doesn’t even like to play with toys, so when he chooses one, he just sort of holds it, but he doesn’t interact with it. The thing that got me was in the corner of the computer, there is a place where he could log out.”

He kept logging out. She would put it back on the screen, but he kept closing out of it. That is when she knew there is more than a 2-year-old inside him.

“We just have to draw it out of him. I think this computer will help us find this out.”

Bennett said she has hope.

“Through this device, he is starting to almost reach out to us now. He is seeking us out now. It has brought that bridge from him being in his own world to him participating in our world.”

The Bennetts, Christine and Shawn, now have a Tobii computer at home.

Christine Bennett programs the computer daily and, although Cole is in a beginning phase, he can tell his mom what he would like to eat, what stories he would like to read and carry on limited conversations.


“We are still learning how we can best use the equipment with our students,” said Jenn Cline, a speech-language pathologist at Southgate. “It is exciting to be able to open up the possibility of enabling our students to communicate … .”

The equipment arrived at the school in November, so teachers still are adjusting to students’ individual needs.

To use the device, each student’s gaze must be calibrated to the camera. The computer detects what the user is looking at and a voice says the word or series of words for the user.

“For most of the students, other types of things have been explored, but there has been something limiting them,” said Michelle Dolensky, another speech-language pathologist at Southgate. “This is just opening a whole new communication avenue for them.”

The Repository


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