Eight-year-old James Ellerbee III likes to go for rides in the country, so much so that his mother likes to call one of his favorite roads “James’ Way.” James is also a fan of survival video games and his face lights up when he sees Moose A. Moose, the mascot for the Nick Jr. network, on TV. He plays soccer and sometimes basketball, but usually prefers to hang out alone and watch others play. Those “others” include his younger brother Roemeillo, 6, who enjoys sports but also likes balloons, bubbles and snuggling up with a book.
Beyond their distinctive personalities and interests, the Ellerbee boys have something very important in common: They’re discovering the power of their equally distinctive voices with the aid of the Tobii Dynavox T10s they’ve had since Fall 2014. It is exciting for their parents, Latisha and James Ellerbee Jr., to see the process unfold. The tablet-style T10 is Roemeillo’s first augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. James quickly adapted to the T10 after using the Tobii Dynavox Maestro for several years.
The Ellerbees live on the U.S. Army base in Fort Stewart, GA where James is stationed. When the boys got their T10, they were both attending Kessler Elementary, a school for children whose parents are in the military. Latisha acknowledges that self-expression will likely always be rough for her sons because of their autism. James is non-verbal. Roemeillo (nicknamed Rogy) has similar communication difficulties though he occasionally mimics spoken language. Latisha trusts that her sons will overcome such barriers through the new technology and said it already has brought a profound change in life at home.
“It made my job easier.”
Latisha wholeheartedly digs in to tweak the words and images on the T10s to reflect what her boys need and want to talk about on any given day. Using the Tobii Dynavox Compass app, which has the same communication software as the devices, she modifies the language content on her iPad and transfers it to their devices. She makes preprogrammed content on each T10 personal by adding her own photos and images she finds online that reflect everyday experiences.
For James, Latisha created a page on the T10, with photos of the school cafeteria with phrases for ordering his meal and pictures reminding him what to say in various lunchtime scenarios — “This table’s dirty,” for example, or “I want to throw this away.” Using clip art for quarters, dimes and pennies, she designed him a page for learning the value of coins. There is also a photo of the family car he selects to say he wants to go somewhere, maybe a favorite restaurant. Communication is more direct than in the pre-device days when James scrambled around the house for menus, pictures and coupons to show his mom what or where he wanted to eat.
On Rogy’s T10, there is a page with photos of his school bus and the driver, along with vocabulary to ask to play with bubbles and talk about Dora the Explorer, his favorite character. Latisha is using the device to teach Rogy to express feelings such as “I’m tired” politely and to read.
What keeps me motivated is that the kids want to learn.
“What keeps me motivated is that the kids want to learn,” Latisha said. “They pick up on what I’m trying to tell them.”
James and Rogy learn differently and they’re smart, said Christin Bradley, a severe to moderate special education teacher at Kessler who taught both boys. She recalled that James, who used the Maestro in her class, came to equate communication with taking care of himself. Staff required him to use the device to say ordinary things — that he wanted to eat breakfast at school that day or permission to take breaks, for instance.
“Eventually, he learned that he needed it wherever he went,” she said. The device let others understand him as he grew more independent.
Rogy benefited from using his T10 during circle or whiteboard time. He readily engaged in lessons with other students, Mrs. Bradley said, because the symbols on his device matched those on the calendar, board and other classroom learning materials. She collaborated with Latisha on creating device content to help Rogy master letter-of-the-week lessons.
“Mom is always on top of things,” Mrs. Bradley said.
Latisha, meanwhile, is excited for the future. She pictures a carefree trip to Philadelphia for a visit with her family, James and Rogy carrying their lightweight Tobii Dynavox T10s on shoulder straps as they board the train. The best part almost certainly will be talking with her boys. Their road to communication has opened and it looks like there’s no turning back.
“They’ve got a spark,” she said.
(Moose A. Moose, Nick Jr. and Dora the Explorer are registered trademarks of Viacom International Inc.)