When Stevie Yates was a year and a half old, he stopped speaking. Then, he continued to withdraw into himself.
The only thing Stevie wanted to do was sit facing a corner and stack legos in a particular color combination, over and over again. When his mother, Stephanie Yates, touched him, he screamed.
“I felt like we’d lost him,” Yates said. “He wouldn’t make eye contact, wouldn’t let us touch him. He didn’t talk. It was like losing a kid altogether.”
It took another year and a half before Stevie was diagnosed with autism.
Now at 17, Stevie Yates has a job in his school cafeteria, attends public school in a general classroom and volunteers part time at both a city and university library part-time after school.
“He’s come a long way,” Yates said. “He’s not what you would call a typical person with autism because he really likes seeing new things, seeing new places.”
But it wasn’t smooth sailing immediately after his early difficulties. After his diagnosis, Yates fought to get Stevie the intervention he needed, especially finding Stevie a voice.
She began with a speech therapist, who suggested assistive technology. They started simple—small photos to represent “yes” or “no.” Then they tried sign language, which fell short in kindergarten, so they went back to AT, this time with a GoTalk — a plastic frame that held cards with photos, called overlays. When an overlay was inserted into the GoTalk, the pictures became buttons that would play a recording of a word.
But that presented another problem. There were so many overlays, they ended up as a foot-high stack and were impossible to keep track of.
So the Yateses moved on to Say it All, an interactive machine that featured both an array of pictures for pre-set words and a large keyboard for spontaneous speech. That worked for a while, but also ended up being too big.
When DynaVox came out with the Dynamite 3100, they jumped ship. The DynaVox device was about the size of square, plastic college textbook with a sturdy handle and a touch screen that pulled up a menu of folders. When pushed, the folders pull up customizable buttons for preset speaking or a keyboard for impromptu speeches.
“It was amazing when he really took to it because he had a lot to say,” Yates said. After Stevie and his sister attended a camp where half of the children use speech output devices and half do not, Yates heard Stevie type out his first word.
“We were driving back from Mississippi because we lived in Louisiana at the time and it started to rain — all I hear is, ‘Rain.’ That was his first spontaneous word just kind of typing on his own.”
The DynaVox machine was the first device that truly opened doors for Stevie to not only go to school, but be included. When he was in third grade, Yates (who had driven an hour every weekend for five weeks to attend DynaVox workshops) programmed the Pledge of Allegiance into his device. Stevie could now lead the class, a privilege every student in his class fought for.
But his device also weighed ten pounds. An aide carried Stevie’s device on the playground for him and when he got home, it was dropped by the front door along like backpacks and books.
Last March, a happy coincidence opened more doors for Stevie. Yates’ coworker at the Nevada Assisted Technologies, George McKinlay asked if Stevie would be interested in Beta-testing for a new program: Using an iPod as a speech device.
“You should have seen his face when I showed him what it did,” Yates said. “He kinda grabbed it. I said, you don’t like that big box anymore do you and he said, ‘No big box, no big box.’”
Within a day, Stevie was using the iPod with as much ease as his previous devices. Unlike his previous devices, which cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000, weighted several pounds and required complex programming, his new iPod weighed a few ounces, cost around $500 with its application and was user-friendly. His voice, now piped through an external speaker that hangs around his neck, is also more nuanced and paced like a human’s, instead of the highly synthesized voice he previously had that couldn’t be understood over the phone.
“To me, it’s amazing,” Yates said. “These boxes aren’t what people are using. But this iPod is more mainstream technology; it’s more accepted. With this, you look at someone and think, ‘Oh poor person,’ but with this you think, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ People can relate.”