Patti Hamaguchi first dabbled in speech-language pathology as a kid, teaching new words to a neighbor boy who struggled to speak, before she even knew the name for the practice.
Today, the 52-year-old Morgan Hill resident has made a name for herself as a leading expert in the field – partly because of the way she married technology with traditional speech therapy by creating touch-screen mobile apps for the iPad and iTouch that teach children with delayed language skills how to better communicate.
Hamaguchi, who runs a pediatric speech therapy practice in Cupertino, founded Hamaguchi Apps in 2011, joining a burgeoning movement in the technology sector to create software for children with spectrum disorders and other disabilities.
Few at the time – and not too many more now – sold multilingual mobile software designed specifically to improve speech, language and listening of children with autism or an autism spectrum disorder. It wasn’t for lack of demand, either. About one in every 110 children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s 1 percent of the underage population – millions of kids in the U.S.
“We had a lot of parents asking us to recommend apps they could take home to help their kids, but we couldn’t find any tailored to their exact needs,” Hamaguchi said.
So she made her own.
The 30-year speech-therapy veteran and prolific author on the subject teamed up with software developers to create games that a special needs child could use, understand and enjoy.
Once those games hit the Apple app store, speech pathologists and educators across the country eagerly snatched them up to incorporate into their language therapy programs. Enthusiastic reviews cropped up in various publications and blogs. Fan mail started pouring in with testimonials and requests for more games.
Evidently, Hamaguchi was on to something. Technology
New Jersey speech pathologist Amanda Backof penned some of those glowing reviews on her blog. Part of the reason she loved them was because they were so affordable – less than $10 per.
“Not bad when you consider that some software runs up to hundreds or thousands of dollars,” she said. “Just in terms of pricing, it’s more accessible.”
That affordability often means cash-strapped public school districts have been willing to adopt the technology in their special needs programs, too, she pointed out. In more affluent communities where families own their own Apple tablets, families can even buy the apps themselves.
Then there’s the mobility. That it’s on a tablet or handheld means people like Mandi Schaumburg, a certified speech pathologist who works with special ed students in Texas public schools, can move them around from place to place without lugging a mountain of baggage.
A self-described “app nerd,” Schaumburg said she always keeps an eye out for new therapy apps.
“There are lots of apps for speech out there, but not ones that specifically target kids with autism,” she said. “It works for them because it’s very simple, the animations and graphics are clean, there aren’t a lot of extra details, which can be a problem for kids with autism because there’s too much going on and they can’t focus in on anything.”
The simplicity of it allows autistic kids to learn concepts otherwise very difficult to comprehend, like how a chair is called the same thing in any color. Often, an autistic child will take a definition of “chair,” for example, to mean literally that exact object and color.
“So if a kid learns that a yellow chair is a chair, he has a difficult time grasping that chairs in other colors are called the same thing,” Hamaguchi explained.
Some of the more advanced apps teach how to express emotion as well as literal meaning. Apps like “The Surprise,” a simplified choose-your-own-adventure-type game, allow kids to control the outcome of a character’s actions. It also teaches them emotion recognition, reading facial expressions, reactions and other social cues lost on those with a spectrum disorder.
One of the most important features for educators, however, is the built-in data tracking – especially if public money paid for the software to begin with.
Though the target market remains children with spectrum disorders, the apps have helped kids with a range of disabilities, including Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy and other developmental delays.
“We’re still exploring all the possibilities ourselves,” Hamaguchi said. “It’s exciting to think about what’s next.”
Newest app: “The Surprise,” an animated wordless storybook