September 2014 update: I have edited a few items in this list to reflect changes to the program since its most recent update. Please note that any sections listed in italics are updated at the end, and some of the italicized issues are no longer a problem.
Now that we’ve been using it for a few weeks, I’m ready to share my thoughts on the pros and cons on the Speak for Yourself app (mostly pros).
First, though, a five-second description of how the program works: there is a main screen with (I believe) 112 buttons. Nearly all of them are capable of linking to a second screen– for example, the “EAT” button links in to a full page of food options, with a selection of eating-related verbs. You can only go one menu deep, and after making a selection on the sub-menu, you’re bounced back to the main menu. That keeps you from having to go manually in and out to make choices, but it also means you have to keep going back into a menu if you want to make several selections of that type. You can hide buttons to simplify the screen and fill the empty space with black. In addition, the premise of the program operates on muscle memory and motor planning– the buttons may be small, but they always stay in the exact same place, so you start to learn pretty quickly that if you want a banana you hit “EAT” in the center of the screen and immediately pan right to “BANANA.” Ham had this figured out after just a few days of using the program.
Okay! On to the assessment.
Lots of word choices loaded into word bank. The program comes with something like 9,000 words loaded in (some are already programmed into slots; others are images saved in the word bank that you can call up when creating new buttons). Interestingly, it has the option “tomb of the unknown soldier” but not the word “cheese,” although that’s not really representative of the overall usefulness of most of the words available. That’s okay, though: you can pull images from your camera roll, and therefore the internet, to create your own buttons. Overall, the program can store up to 14,000. While some of the buttons don’t open to a second menu screen by design, if even 100 of the 112 options do, that’s the possibility of 11,200 programmed in and ready to go. Phew!
Computer voice is adjustable. You can select male voices with an American or British accent, or female voices with an American, British or Irish accent. In addition, you can customize the pitch of the voice from “very low” to “very high.” A very high voice sounds a bit like a child’s voice, which is nice– it’s something you might not think of as an important customization, but where this is Ham’s actual “voice” for now, it shouldn’t be some standard computer man voice, you know? You can also customize the rate of speed for reading the words aloud. We adjusted this to “slow” (it goes from “very fast” to “very slow”) because it seems to default to speaking a little quickly.
Babble function. After setting a bunch of menus to have hidden items, I don’t want to re-open all of the menus manually and have to edit them again. It’s easy enough when the menu only has 1-3 items available because I can just remember what they are and show them again manually after, but when Ham has access to half of a full page, do I really want to go through selecting items to show or hide one at a time? Spoiler alert: no, I don’t. Enter: the Babble function! Babble enables the user to have access to every single button in the program and, essentially, “babble” like a baby with typical speech development might do. When Ham plays around in the Babble function, it gives her a chance to try out buttons and get a feel for where all of them are, even the ones that she doesn’t regularly use. She has a tendency to spend a few minutes looking at her TV shows and characters, then family members, then random words, so sometimes we’ll find her typing up a string of Cookie Monsters, followed by Uncle Joey seven times, followed by “Tractor! Provided! None! Any! Algebra!” Then, when I turn Babble off, all of our settings go back to normal.
Lock Programming function. This keeps Curious Ham from deleting and renaming all of the buttons by accident. It’s a bit annoying because you have to leave the program, go into the iPad’s Settings, allow programming, then go back into Speak For Yourself, but that’s sort of the point. When I combine it with Guided Access (which keeps her from pressing the Home button and leaving the program), it safeguards against her getting into iPad reprogramming shenanigans.
Search function. If you don’t know which menu contains a specific word, you can type it into the search function in the top left corner and the program will highlight the menu and then the word. Helpful for those moments where you’re talking about a new thing and you want to add it in right then. Ham and I did this yesterday while looking out the window– we added in “snow” and “cold,” and she continued to select both of those words this morning all through breakfast. It’s a nice way to catch that moment quickly in a natural way, which is pretty critical with AAC. It’s important to have a system that allows you to move past the “all you can do is request” phase and into commenting and discussing what’s on your mind. (I’ve also found that on days after she has OT, she likes to talk about “OT Gym,” “frog swing,” “slide,” “bean bags,” “blue room,” and “whale swing” for a day or two.)
General research and philosophy involved in the design. The creators of Speak For Yourself based the design of the program on patterns of typical human speech and language development, but also on feedback from teachers, parents, and users of AAC programs, and they are continually re-evaluating the program and tweaking it based on their complaints and recommendations. That’s very encouraging to me.
Easy updating between iPad devices via DropBox and iTunes. Okay, so it wasn’t easy the first time around, but once I got the hang of it I found that updating more than one iPad to streamline Speak For Yourself across both was a snap! I did it with DropBox– you just save a vocabulary file and upload it to DropBox, then download from DropBox on your second device, and bada-bing, bada-boom, you have two devices with the exact same version of SFY, including anything you added, moved, or deleted.
An informative and accessible Facebook group! Okay, so while this isn’t a feature of the program itself, the Speak For Yourself Users Group has been hugely beneficial to me both in navigating the program and considering issues surrounding AAC adaptations at school and in the community. Speak For Yourself creator Heidi LoStracco is very active in the group herself, and has been wonderfully helpful to myself and others in answering questions about the program. I have also interacted with a number of “AAC parents” who have had all sorts of suggestions for aftermarket adaptations (iPad cases, straps, sound amplifiers). There’s been a wonderful supportive atmosphere there, too. All around, a nice group of people. I don’t know if other AAC programs have amassed the same level of devotees on Facebook, but it’s certainly a bonus to have that accessible resource.
Some flexibility in pronunciation. The computer voice that reads the words may be variable, but the pronunciation of certain words is another issue. Some words just don’t come out right. We found this out pretty quickly with Chicken’s name, which is pretty phonetically spelled but a bit unusual. Even her nickname sounds a bit funny, and that’s a really simple one. She has “u”s in her name either way, and it seems that “u” is often read with a bit of a lazy “y” laced into it. However, you can tweak this a bit– you’re given the option of changing the word to speak and the word label separately. If your name was Andrea but you pronounced it “ahn-DRAY-uh,” you could phonetically spell it out to speak the name properly but still have the label with your name spelled properly. Great, right? Except then this happens: you build a sentence in the bar across the top and, for some reason, the program puts in your phonetic spelling instead of your word label so you get “My name is ahndrayuh” instead of “My name is Andrea.” I guess that doesn’t matter, in a sense, because you’re typing the word to have it spoken aloud and not read by another person, but it would be nice if it was consistent with what you meant it to be. UPDATE: Speak for Yourself now has a third option to change the pronunciation without affecting the spelling of the word label on the icon or in the sentence bar. Now I have to go edit “nectarine” so it no longer reads “nektahreen,” heh.
Categories are kind of random and not always terribly intuitive. I suppose it’s impossible to have a practical and useful home screen while simultaneously maintaining the potential to house tens of thousands of words. There are 112 buttons on the main screen, but there are more than 112 categories of words, really, when you start adding them up: food, clothing, sports, feelings, landmarks, directions, school, exercise & sports, verbs for thinking, prepositions, weather, measurements of time, technology… not all of those items will naturally fall on the main screen, which contains things like help, the, family, eat, drink, sleep, more, want. So you get things like a category called “GOOD” which links to a bunch of sports activities, and “THEN” which houses carnival rides and OT activities like different types of therapy swings. The point is essentially that you just remember where things are, especially because you don’t have to go fishing in a series of sub-menus and then try to dig your way back out, so it’s really not terribly complicated. It just feels a bit like there might have been a better way to do it, even though realistically I understand that there isn’t.
Small buttons means more errors. For Ham, this isn’t a huge problem– her fine motor skills aren’t perfect, but they’re not significantly delayed; in addition, she has excellent visual discrimination skills despite an OT report from early August that says otherwise. She can scan and identify a small object in a fairly large array of options, and she’s motivated to find what she’s looking for. The one issue here is just accidentally mistyping, which does happen a small but notable percentage of the time. However, we’re looking into getting her a keyguard to fit her device, which will overlay the screen and help her anchor her finger a bit on the buttons. It’ll also be exponentially harder to clean, so I’ll have to be a bit more diligent about teaching her to wipe her finger before touching the screen at meal times. UPDATE: We opted to forego a keyguard, and I think that’s the right choice since she no longer seems to need one. It’s now been eight months since we first got the program, and Ham is fairly diligent about deleting wrong words and correcting them on her own. She’s also much more precise about what she wants to say– she’s more likely to pause and focus, at least most of the time, than to get distracted and start randomly pressing buttons. And again, while it’s nice to have big large buttons, small buttons are totally worth it to have a program that gives you easy access to core vocabulary. It’s too important to say only once: small buttons are totally worth it to have a program that gives you easy access to core vocabulary.
Reading sentences out loud sometimes sounds too fast or skips a bit. It’s odd– it reads one of my brothers’ names like a full sentence, and then at other times it races through reading words in a series. I’m loathe to set the speed to “very slow” just to hear a normal rate of speech, you know?
Finally, a “con” that has been neutralized, but I’m leaving it here in italics with further explanation at the end.
Can only have each word available once, no duplicates even if you want them. The goal behind this is smart: you don’t have duplicate buttons all over the place taking up space and confusing the program user. It would get pretty cumbersome for a person to have to remember that the word “hungry” appears on both the “FEEL” and “EAT” screens. But what about words that are spelled the same but have two or more very different meanings, like “turkey”? Do you put it with the food or the animals? (That might better serve as a compelling debate for vegetarians and omnivores, hmm.) The program works around this a bit ingeniously– adding a period to the end of the word. Smart! I discovered this when I saw that the word “turkey” on the food page was spelled “turkey.” I did the same when adding the character Pig from Super Why into Ham’s TV shows and characters. I then found that, of course, when you try to assemble an actual sentence, the program reads that word as if it is the last word in the sentence. Not a huge concern for us at the moment, but Ham may be building sentences at some point. UPDATE: So it turns out, you don’t have to use a period to differentiate words– a non-spoken symbol like “_” will do. I can change “chicken.” to “chicken_” and avoid the sentence-ending hard stop that sometimes makes Ham’s phrasing sound funny. Perfect! This issue is no longer a “con” for me.
SPEAK FOR YOURSELF WISH LIST
* I wish you could make duplicate words by choice.
* I wish you could do a few more sub-menus (I’d love to have “UNCLE” under the “FAMILY” menu further link to specific people who are uncles, etc). I know the reason they made it not go deep into sub-menus, but sometimes I wish I could.
OVERALL GRADE: B. I generally like this program. I think it’s a really good fit for Ham’s particular needs and skills. It might not be for everyone, but I think that for us it has longevity and promise. I also like that buying a program for the iPad means we’ll still have a useful piece of equipment if Ham starts to outgrow her need for a communication device (and, though we chose to get an iPad and pay out of pocket, we also didn’t have the hassle of trying to pin down insurance coverage for a dedicated AAC device that would have cost thousands of dollars).