Transformations: Using technology to unlock the special needs user

Earlier this week, I came across a video that told the story of Carly Fleishmann, a non-verbal autistic teen. Despite intensive therapy with her parents and therapists, it was obvious that Carly was lost in her own world, unable to communicate with those around her even with hang signals because she was prone to flailing and tantrums. But those closest to her never abandoned the belief “there was something else there.”

“When you look in Carly’s eyes, you see an innate intelligence. So we never gave up,” says her father, Arthur Fleishmann.

In the course of one day, Carly’s life changed forever. Carly, age 11 at the time, ran to the family laptop in desperation and typed H-E-L-P. Her family and therapists were astonished. Carly had never directly communicated with anyone before, and they had never thought to use a computer. Several months later, she was using the computer to communicate with others.

“She started to realize that by communicating, she had power over her environment,” says one of her therapists.

Carly used the computer to communicate her wants and needs, but also to illuminate causes of high autistic behavior. For example, enigmatic behaviors such as head banging are prevalent because, as Carly explains, “If I don’t do them, I feel like I might explode. I create output to block out input.”

Carly, though still non-verbal, now blogs and uses social media services such as Twitter to tell her story. She is now happier, calmer, and more independent. The transformation, in the eyes of her parents, has been nothing short of profound.

This video, in its essence, has broader applications to the disability community--the importance of technology. That transformational “Aha” moment when communication becomes fluid and attainable. The impact is enormous.

When you have a condition that limits communication, it is physically dangerous to the disabled individual because they cannot express distress. It is also very emotionally isolating. Misconceptions of disabled people normally arise because they cannot correct their critics.

Sean Grassley, a man living with cerebral palsy, knew this feeling all too well. Sean Grassley typed his name for the first time at 35 years old with help from orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard. Before hand, ignorant case workers had referred to Sean as a “dummy” because his cerebral palsy made it difficult to communicate his thoughts and feelings. He later used orbiTouch to type, “I did it. I am not a dummy.”

Often, there is a disconnect between the person and their disability. The disability is an aspect of their life, but it’s not who they are. As we see with Carly and Sean, their mental capacity mismatches their physical capacity. Their minds are completely in tact--it’s their body that doesn’t cooperate.

Persons with disabilities often describe their disability as being “trapped inside their own body.” We are finding that technology, however, is a way to free oneself from a lifetime of silence. The key to unlocking mysteries that have baffled scientists and caregivers alike lies with the devices and gadgets created today. The human mind and body are infinitely complex, but with the right tools, we can help alleviate the weight that silence brings.