By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website
A South Yorkshire dad whose child has severe autism has developed a technology to help his son and others like him communicate.
The father of a child with severe autism has developed technology to help him communicate.
Stephen Lodge said the idea for his Speaks4Me system came to him years ago but has been waiting for technology to catch up in order to make it a reality.
His eleven-year-old son, Callum, is non-verbal and uses his father’s invention to speak.
Speaks4Me was on show at Naidex 2010 – the annual disability exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham.
Mr Lodge’s system runs on any device that can run the Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 operating system.
It uses the concept of dragging and dropping images from one area of the screen to another to form sentences.
The user then presses a speech button to “verbalise” the sentence.
“Callum has been using Speaks4Me for some time now and he has already been able to create some very expressive sentences,” Mr Lodge told the BBC.
Examples include, “I want a drink of juice”, “I want to go outside”, and “I feel tired”.
Mr Lodge – who lives in South Yorkshire – has 20 years’ experience in technology and developed Speaks4Me after deciding that other products on the market were unsatisfactory for Callum.
He cashed in his savings and raised money on his property in order to finance the venture.
Speaks4Me is currently sold on a portable, touch screen media player imported from the Far East.
But the company is finalising a “software only” price which will mean that it can run on any Windows laptop, desktop or even an interactive plasma white board in schools.
Mr Lodge says that several people have already tried the system.
“It’s fabulous to see how such an exciting but simple concept is well understood by the children that have been introduced to it,” he said.
Mr Lodge estimates it takes half an hour or less to be able to understand and use the system.
He is also hoping that it will prove useful to stroke survivors – about a third of whom lose the ability to speak, either temporarily or permanently.
“Imagine waking up in hospital, not being able to speak: how would you ask for the toilet?” he said.
Speaks4Me currently retails for about £2,000.
Mr Lodge says his future plans include being able to put his software on other portable devices such as mobile phones and gaming handsets.
Also having its UK launch at Naidex was a French product called the Minifone.
The device can summon help and take incoming calls
It is being sold in the UK by Essex-based PivoTell which describes the product as the world’s smallest digital cordless phone.
Designed with older and disabled people in mind, the Minifone is worn like a wrist watch.
It can be used to summon help from three pre-programmed numbers and has the additional option of being connected to a call centre.
Provided that the landline has caller line identification (CLI) enabled, the Minifone will also display the date and time and the name or number of an incoming caller.
The Minifone uses a built-in speaker and microphone.
“The experience in France has been that – unlike alarm pendants which have a certain stigma attached – people find these quite attractive and so are more likely to be wearing them,” said Adrian Milne of PivoTell.
The device costs £150 and a subscription to the call centre is £10 per month.
Naidex 2010 was at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham from 20 – 22 April.
Autism – New help for some – a tool that works