Villa Esperanza’s Tech-savvy Speech and Language Center Uses Innovative Ipad Applications

Villa's Hjelte-Phillips Speech and Language Center, under the direction of Gwendolyn Meier is dedicated to giving a voice to individuals who are nonverbal

Published : Monday, August 6, 2012 | 12:35 PM

Samantha, a Villa student, also works with Gwendolyn Meier on gaining communication skills using the Ipad. Photo: Villa Esperanza Service

Vanessa is a high school student at Villa Esperanza Services’ School located in Pasadena.

She doesn’t speak, but instead spent the first 16 years of her life communicating primarily by flipping her hand at the side of her leg to say “Hi,” waving her hand at her waist when she needed to go to the restroom, and screaming while bouncing up and down in her seat both when excited and when distressed.

Villa’s speech and language clinicians worked with Vanessa for years to teach and develop recognition and pointing skills so that she could utilize pictures to help her communicate. Once she had gained some basic skills, an evaluation revealed that Vanessa could benefit from assistive technology in the form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

Villa Esperanza Services knows the importance of staying current with the latest technologies. Villa’s Hjelte-Phillips Speech and Language Center, under the direction of Gwendolyn Meier, MA, CCC-SLP, MT-BC, is dedicated to giving a voice to individuals who are nonverbal; and they are doing so at the touch of a screen. Using “apps” for the iPad and iPod, Villa’s clinicians are helping individuals with autism across a broad spectrum of communication and educational challenges.

Due to the prevalence and relative affordability of the iPad, more students than ever before are being assessed for computer-based augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems.

Students with autism often become adept with the touch screen interface by playing games and videos on family iPhones, iPods and iPads. These basic skills can often be shaped into meaningful communication when an appropriate app and treatment plan are implemented by a trained AAC professional. Before the iPad, the expense of traditional, high tech speech-generating devices for nonverbal individuals (e.g., $4,000-8,000) prevented many with autism from accessing these technologies. These days, the purchase of an iPad and appropriate communication apps can cost as little as $600.

“Technology has changed the variety of communication options available to nonverbal and minimally verbal students and clients in Villa Esperanza’s family of youth and adult programs. In addition, hidden potentials for understanding and learning have been revealed through the use of educational apps. The powerful reinforcing nature of many leisure and entertainment apps on the iPad (e.g., games, YouTube videos) coupled with the portability of the tablet has allowed its behavior team to better support some of its most challenging students. In addition to its work with toddlers and students, we work with its supported employment, residential, and adult day treatment programs to evaluate what communication options might be feasible in these settings where direct therapeutic services are not often covered,” says Meier, Director of the Speech and Language Center.

Today, Vanessa has her own iPad with a specially designed app that gives her access to pages of useful vocabulary.

This allows Vanessa to greet her peers and teachers using their names, interact in her transitional work program at Villa’s campus store, and share what she is thinking and feeling without screaming or bouncing. Vanessa’s attention and focus during communicative exchanges have increased many times over, just in this past year. Now, at 18 years old, Vanessa has a voice with which she can speak for herself wherever she goes.

About Villa’s Hjelte-Phillips Speech and Language Center: The Villa Esperanza Services’ Hjelte-Phillips Speech and Language Clinic is a community clinic that provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for children and adults with a broad range of communication disorders and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) needs. Its clinicians assess and treat infants through adults with a wide variety of communication disorders resulting from Developmental Delays, Intellectual Disabilities, Autism, Phonological and Articulation Disorders, Learning Differences and Acquired Brain Injuries.

Contact its speech department at or call 626/795-8355 if a loved one or family friend needs a speech and language assessment, augmentative and alternative communication assessment, a second opinion, individual speech therapy, group therapy, or consultative service.

The Speech and Language Center also provides training for special educators, related professionals, and caregivers in the use of technology to meet communication needs; offered on its campus or on-site and at local schools and agencies in the greater Los Angeles region.

About Gwendolyn Meier: Gwendolyn Meier, MA, CCC-SLP, MT-BC, is a speech-language pathologist and a board-certified music therapist who has dedicated her professional life to providing treatment to children and young adults with communicative and social-emotional challenges. Gwendolyn studied and practiced music therapy for ten years before pursuing a degree in speech-language pathology and a Certificate in Autism at California State University Los Angeles.

As director of the Speech and Language Center at Villa Esperanza Services, Gwendolyn specializes in the assessment and treatment of autism spectrum-related communication disorders with particular emphasis in visually-based strategies and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for non-speaking and minimally verbal students and clients. In addition to supporting her staff of six clinicians, Gwendolyn provides training in the greater Los Angeles region on uses of the iPad for education and communication, the benefits of music in special education, and educating students with autism spectrum disorders.

In 2010, Gwendolyn co-founded the Southern California AAC Network and in 2012 she received an Outstanding Achievement award from her local district of the California Speech-Language Hearing Association for her work with the group.

Gwendolyn will speak at the 7th Annual “Back to School” Autism/Asperger’s Conference. The conference will take place Friday, August 10, and Saturday, August 11, 2012 at the Pasadena Convention Center, Pasadena, Ca. Gwendolyn will be presenting on “Communication Options using the iPad” and also “The Mysterious Power of Music” in autism.

To read Pasadena Now’s article on the Autism/Asperger’s Conference click here.

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