Focus on Research: Penn State researchers explore the future of augmentative communication

Janice Light is a Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State. Her research focuses on improving communication outcomes and enhancing quality of life for individuals with significant speech and language impairments.
Janice Light is a Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State. Her research focuses on improving communication outcomes and enhancing quality of life for individuals with significant speech and language impairments. Photo provided

Changes in technology continue to have a dramatic impact on the way people connect, including among those with unique communication needs.

This topic is no stranger to researchers at Penn State, who are testing and developing new technologies and supports to advance a field in which there is limited knowledge and information.

Penn State’s department of communication sciences and disorders, in collaboration with a variety of other health care organizations and research centers, is leading experimentation, training and dissemination of information to improve outcomes for those who rely on alternative communication.

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research awarded a $5 million grant to CSD to enhance communication and improve outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication. In collaboration with Oregon Health and Science University, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital and InvoTek, the grant will be used for a Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Over a period of five years, work will focus on enhancing communication and improving outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication (e.g., signs, communication books, speech-generating devices and mobile technologies), including, but not limited to, individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, stroke and degenerative neurological disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Led by principal investigator Janice Light, distinguished professor of communication sciences and disorders at Penn State, several of the research and development projects were underway as of Oct. 1.

“We were the only Rehabilitation Engineering Research center funded on rehabilitation strategies, techniques and interventions,” Light said. “We are really excited about the research, development, training and dissemination activities that we have planned and the new collaborations that we will be building, both in house at Penn State with the College of Engineering and the College of Information Sciences and Technology, as well as nationwide with other leading research centers. This is an incredible opportunity to advance the field and improve outcomes for children and adults with the most complex communication needs.”

Jessica Gosnell Caron, a doctoral candidate in CSD, said the grant and corresponding research is beneficial because it provides students such as herself with access to current information in the field as well as a range of experiences she can use in her career.

She said the grant’s collaboration with other health care and research centers is exciting.

“As a student, you are getting access to a wealth of information,” she said.

Caron’s research interests include maximizing communication outcomes in individuals with special needs. Some of her experience in that area includes technology development and the use of social media to address barriers to success.

“It’s an incredible opportunity being here and being a part of the RERC,” Caron said. “(It provides) a great example of how to be an investigator, trainer and collaborator, all things we’re learning as doctoral students.”

Caron said that working with Light opened her eyes to what’s involved in this type of work. By attending research meetings, Caron is able to see how Light moves the research along.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to see how she runs a big research grant,” Caron said. “It’s really exciting. She’s amazing. What she’s done and how the field has advanced is largely due to her and the research team at Penn State.”

David McNaughton, professor of special education, is leading the training and dissemination activities.

“I have worked in the field of AAC for over 30 years, beginning as a clinician at a children’s rehabilitation center,” he said. “There have always been two important components to an effective AAC intervention: the identification and use of appropriate AAC technology, and providing instruction so the person who uses AAC and his or her communication partner know how to use AAC to support communication.”

The first of the activities, AAC Incubator, involves creating teams of Penn State students to conduct research with people with disabilities in order to identify unmet technology needs.

“We are working with Godfrey Nazareth, a person with ALS who uses AAC, and Susan Fager, a researcher from Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, to interview persons with ALS about their perspectives on AAC technology, and ways in which the technology could be improved. Our goal is to identify innovative design features which will then be given to the Learning Factory teams,” McNaughton said.

The Learning Factory projects, done in collaboration with the Penn State College of Engineering’s Learning Factory program, involves developing and testing prototype AAC technologies, he said.

“Using the ideas generated from the AAC Incubator projects, we will work with undergraduate students in the College of Engineering who will use the technology development activities as their senior design/capstone engineering experience,” he said.

Another activity is referred to as AAC webcasts and massive open online course.

“Over the next five years, we will develop 12 webcasts on the use of AAC,” McNaughton said. “These will include first-person descriptions of the use of AAC by persons with complex communication needs, as well as descriptions of research and development, guidelines for practice, etc. In year four, we will present a MOOC on AAC that will incorporate these materials as well as other activities.”

Another project, he said, is a State of the Science conference, which will bring together leading researchers in the field of AAC as well as people who use AAC, AAC clinicians and AAC manufacturers, in order to summarize the state of the science in the AAC field and to identify an agenda for future research and development.

“Our goal is to make it easier for everyone — persons who use AAC, family members, speech language pathologists and educators — to find out about AAC and to learn how to support its effective use,” McNaughton said. “One major barrier to AAC right now is the lack of knowledge of the benefits that it can provide and the limited information available on how to support its effective use. We now have an outstanding team and a comprehensive plan for increasing awareness and knowledge of AAC.”

For more information about AAC research, development and training activities, visit aac.psu.edu. For more information about CSD at Penn State visit csd.hhd.psu.edu.