Treatments & Research

Finding Their Voice

Special devices and apps help patients communicate

One of the hallmarks of Shriners Hospitals for Children is the staff ’s commitment to the overall well-being of our patients. For some patients with orthopaedic and other conditions, including speech-related difficulties, that could mean something as significant as helping them learn to communicate.

Speech/language pathologist Laura Barnett leads the speech therapy program at our Salt Lake City location, which serves about 30 children at any given time, including several kids who participate in the augmentative communications program.

How the program works

Barnett’s patients are children with speech disorders who also have a range of other conditions, including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and genetic syndromes. The children who are non- or minimally verbal, or whose speech is very difficult to understand, are evaluated to determine whether the augmentative communications program would benefit them. The assessment answers these questions:

  • How well does the child understand language?
  • What types of pictures or symbols do they understand?
  • How can they access an augmentative communications system: pointing, eye gaze, using a switch?
  • How well can they see and hear?
  • How will the device be carried on their body, walker or wheelchair?

Once the evaluation is complete, Barnett works with the families and the patients’ school teams to develop the criteria needed for the communication system for each child, and then matches that information to available devices and apps. Once a suitable system is found, the request is either sub­mitted for insurance funding, or a donated iPad and iTunes card (to purchase the augmentative communication apps, such as picture displays) is sought. These apps can cost from $200 to $300. “Some patients get a specific device designed for augmentative communication; others do better with an iPad-app combination,” said Barnett. “Med­ical insurance generally will not pay for an iPad, so we rely on donations.”

The power of communication

Barnett uses an iPad in nearly all her therapy sessions. For the non-verbal children, it pro­vides a way to communicate about the play activities that are part of therapy. Although the children learn to play the games on the devices quickly, it takes about a year to become proficient in using the communica­tion app.  “For children who cannot speak, using an iPad to communicate opens up the world and allows the child to interact with their families and others,” said Barnett.

“Com­munication is really the essence of human life. Children who learn to use augmentative communication systems have the opportu­nity to express their own thoughts and ideas, ask for what they need and ask questions.” Lauren, age 4, is one of Barnett’s patients who is benefiting from this program. She is learning to use the Touch Chat app.  “Lauren is coming along quickly now,” said her mother, Jessica. “We are grateful she got some help purchasing the app. It’s helpful for her to be able to express herself in ways she was not able to before.”

Several other Shriners Hospitals loca­tions, including Erie, Pennsylvania; Tampa, Florida; Springfield, Massachusetts; Philadelphia and Chicago, also have speech therapy programs that incorporate the use of iPads.

TO LEARN MORE about how to support this program, please visit