Swati Gupta, Founder of Inclusys and former principal research scientist at Callaghan Innovation, talks about her journey of developing the Talk With Me app and the team behind it.
TALK WITH ME is a collaborative learning tool where children with autism sit alongside and share the app with people in their lives and have social conversations. It comes with a variety of topics for children to practice. Talk With Me is fully customisable. Educators and parents can personalise the content according to the child’s needs.
All our content is crafted with care by our passionate and committed speech and language therapists, and there is a wide variety of content to choose from for your child. We’ll keep creating new and timely content for you to try, so that you never run out of options as your child progresses through the material.
- over 20 minutes of continuous and independent conversation
- minimal therapist intervention
- excellent joint attention and cooperation
- attempts to verbalise
- expressions of joy
- understanding of turn taking
- minimal training and good memory retention of the tool’s use.
Several special-needs teachers and therapists commented that these are astounding results for children who normally have attention spans of up to three minutes at best, and very limited social interaction. They usually require high intervention and persuasion for any activity. They rarely work together independently and, previously, if left alone, they wouldn’t communicate at all.
In 2016, Callaghan Innovation, University of Otago, and Upland Unit conducted a feasibility study, which showed that the level of children’s social interaction and engagement was superior with Talk With Me, as compared to their personal AAC device, and physical symbol-based vocabulary cards they use regularly.
A Callaghan Innovation student project with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA, conducted interviews with the autism community members in New Zealand and abroad, to analyse the need for applications that improve social skills in children with autism. We found that a tablet-based app for developing communication skills, that is customisable, collaborative, and culturally appropriate could meet the needs of the community.
Later that year, with support from Norman Barry Foundation and Kiwinet, we conducted multiple informal intervention trials in New Zealand and India. They enabled Talk With Me to be used in people’s natural environments and according to their own time and preference. This provided valuable insight into how people would use Talk With Me if they downloaded it from the app store, without any strict guidelines about when and how to use it. Our key results were replicated with most children.
In 2017, Callaghan Innovation and University of Otago, with support from Autism NZ, conducted a study to investigate Talk With Me at home with parents. Most families perceived their child to have gained increased confidence and participation at school, and improved turn-taking in conversations. But we also found that children’s engagement decreased over time; this was primarily due to the small number of conversations on the app, that were either too hard, too easy or uninteresting for some children. We incorporated this feedback into our development process.
My interest in neurodiversity and autism started around 2010 when I was living in Singapore. I was intrigued by the question of how the brain processes information. The quest to find an answer led me to the literature in psychology, neurosciences and cognitive sciences, which, in turn, led me to neurodiversity. I was fascinated that there are other ways of being human.
The story of Talk With Me started in 2015, soon after I moved to New Zealand to work as a scientist at Callaghan Innovation; our team collaborated with the special-needs Upland Unit of Hillmorton High School, and we started experimenting with various ideas around using computer games to enable social interaction among children with autism. The ideas we were testing were good, but nothing like a breakthrough. Until one day, while talking to the Upland Unit’s speech and language therapist, the idea of enabling conversation through symbols and pictures started to emerge. Several iterations and trials later, we got what we call the Talk With Me app today. Interestingly, an initial version of this app was built by someone on the spectrum; Shane Mazlin, programmer at CalIaghan, has Asperger’s Syndrome.
We never want to be complacent about being on the right track to build something that people actually need, so we make sure that we constantly reach out to parents and professionals and get their feedback on our development process.
During 2015-16, we conducted multiple rounds of end-user testing with support from Callaghan Innovation, Kiwinet, and several other organisations, that provided proof-of-concept for the technology. Thereafter I founded Inclusys to develop Talk With Me as a valuable resource for parents and educators to help children with autism learn social interaction skills.
It has been an immensely rewarding journey, notwithstanding the endless challenges and roadblocks along the way. I could not have done this without all the help and support I got from so many amazing people I met at various stages of my journey. We’re now a small team who are all in it for the right reasons.
We asked Amy Taylor, our very passionate and committed speech and language therapist, who takes input from people in the community and crafts amazing content for our app, how she got involved?
I got involved with Talk With Me because I happened to know the right dog!
When I was doing my Masters in Speech and Language Pathology, I would often dog-sit for an awesome couple, one of whom is an academic in autism research. She knew my interest area was communication, especially in autism. One day she asked me if I would be interested in going into schools and doing research for a new app designed to help children with autism interact socially. Of course, I said, and the rest is history!
What I like about Talk With Me?
My absolute highlight moments, in the last one year that I’ve been working on Talk With Me, are when we trial the app with adults and children with autism. Seeing their faces light-up as they interact with it for the first time, is very exciting and makes me feel like we are on to something great here. It is a wonderful tool to foster important and enjoyable communication.
I love the script format of the app which either prompts specific questions to be asked or offers a variety of answers to choose from. This is great as it means the user can choose what they wish to say, and with ease. I believe it is what makes the app so enjoyable and motivating for young people.
Writing conversations for Talk With Me is a fun and exciting endeavour. There is always so much more to write about. On completing one set of conversations, so many more exciting ideas come to mind. I love thinking about the ways different content could be enjoyed by a child, or found useful by a parent, teacher or a therapist.
We all want to be able to communicate. The motivation to communicate varies from person to person, but for the most part, people want their needs heard, they want to understand the information coming at them, and they want to be able to connect with others. Difficulty in verbalising, comprehending language, expressing oneself accurately, or understanding social cues can all be barriers in one’s ability to communicate effectively. Talk With Me is a tool that can support communication in such situations; and even better, it can do this in a way that one feels compelled to continue using it.
How I chose my career?
My choice of career as a Speech and Language therapist has its root in my childhood desire to help people reach their full potential. After my schooling, I took some time off to travel and explore various options. As I learnt more about the world and about myself, I realised that education was the right sector for me and decided to Major in Education.
My experience in both work and study grew, and I came to see the valuable role communication plays in everything. From enabling learning, expressing one’s concerns and needs, to connecting with others, people reach their full potential when they are given an opportunity to communicate. I believe that through supporting communication in all settings, we can enable people to be the best they can be and live the best lives they can live. So, after my Undergrad, I decided to pursue a Masters in Speech Language Pathology.
We also asked technology lead Abhishek Singh, who is a maverick at all things computing and talks about programming languages like a poet might talk about the rising sun, how he got to hear about Talk With Me.
“I will read you from a book and you will be my friend”; true bonds are formed when we travel distances and unravel the unexplored. We have a world within us that waits to be discovered, and deep inside, we have that itch to go for it.
Talk With Me touches the itch that fuels us to make bonds with others, the bonds that lead us to dream, to take the journey and to make the discoveries.
One day a college friend shot an email to recruit for Swati Gupta and that’s how I first heard about Talk With Me. I was instantly intrigued by how this app would help those on the autism spectrum. I got a meeting with Swati, and here we are!
- This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal, Issue 1, 2019