California Lutheran University’s Autism and Communication Center will be able to study the potential benefits and abilities of a new brain-computer interface because of a $67,000 grant that Edlyn Peña, director of the Autism and Communication Center, received. This may be able to help nonverbal people speak and vocalize their thoughts.
Peña said that she was forwarded an email from a friend involved in a nonprofit for people with disabilities called Disability Communications Fund that deals specifically with the communication needs of people with disabilities.
After Peña received the email in the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, she sent in her application for the grant. It wasn’t until December 2016 that Peña found out that she had received the grant, which is for the entire year of 2017.
Peña also said that the device is called Think to Speak, is a combination of a headset that can sense brainwaves, developed at Smartstones Inc. in Santa Barbara. It connects to an app available for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch called “:prose” that translates the brainwaves scanned from the headset into words, which the device with the app can speak aloud.
The experiment itself will have Peña and her team testing Think to Speech on three groups of five people each: those without disabilities who can use speech in typical means, people with autism who have limited speech and use alternate communications, like tablets or letterboards, and people who receive services from PathPoint in Santa Barbara. This is an organization which helps people with intellectual or development disabilities succeed. As for how the study will go, Peña said that she is “cautiously optimistic,” as the technology is still in beta testing now.
Beth Brennan, the other co-director of the Autism and Communication Center, will be assisting Peña in her research study.
“When [Peña and I] started the [Autism and Communication] Center, we knew that this was an area that we really wanted to do more research [in], and [Peña] had her sabbatical semester, which she’s on right now, and so she had the opportunity to really immerse herself into this research,” Brennan said. “So I’m kind of her sidekick. She leads the way, but I’m there to work with some of the study participants and have been kind of a sounding board for the research design and questions that [Peña] has.”
Brennan also said that Peña’s interest in the field of brain-computer interfaces and alternative communication methods for people who are either minimally or nonverbal has been a longtime interest of hers, because Peña’s own son Diego is highly intelligent, but he has minimal verbal speech.
“It’s important for all of us, but it became very personally important for [Peña] that we, our communities, specifically schools, are aware that there are individuals who are exceptionally bright, but don’t communicate in the most typical way that we all communicate through speech,” Brennan said. “And that we want to make sure that the widest range of alternative methods of communication are available to them.”
Ali Steers, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) from Agoura Hills, joined the research team after she met Peña while she was a speech therapist, and ran augmented alternative communication (AAC) programs at CHIME Charter School in Woodland Hills.
Steers said that Peña might have been looking for help for her son, but she was also looking for someone who could help her in the AAC field. Steers also said that she and Peña had similar professional interests, as Peña studied autism and Steers worked with the children that have autism.
Steers also said that she and Peña are “yin and yang,” with Peña focusing on the researching autism, while Steers was all about being on the ground and working hands-on with the children.
In the study itself, Steers acts as a sounding board for Peña as she looks at the emerging technology of Think to Speak through the eyes of a researcher, while Steers looks at the same device as being potentially useful to people who could need it to communicate.