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Innovations for Neurodivergent Minds

While sitting on a couch together a mother shows her adult son a blue pad that helps him communicate.
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
Daanish Ali uses a handheld device to communicate with his mother Dilshad.

Nearly one in every 36 children in the U.S. has received an autism diagnosis. And advancements in technology are helping those who suffer from neurodevelopmental challenges connect with others. 


A.J. NWOKO: Though 23-year-old Daanish Ali is largely non-verbal, he has a lot to say. And over the past decade, he's been able to convey more of what's on his mind.

DILSHAD ALI: You want to ask me for what you wanted?

A.J. NWOKO: This is his voice.

DILSHAD ALI: What are we looking for?

A.J. NWOKO: But this iPad...

DILSHAD ALI: Okay, but can you gimme a full sentence, please?

A.J. NWOKO: Is one of the main ways Daanish communicates.

COMPUTER VOICE: To go my bedroom.


A.J. NWOKO: It's called Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC.

DILSHAD ALI: From, like, third grade onwards, it was a part of his life. It still is.

A.J. NWOKO: His mother, Dilshad Ali, says these customized icons on Daanish's device are simple by design.

DILSHAD ALI: We use the iPad to communicate wants and needs. It's not used, you know, enough to be able to, like, say hi and hello to people.

A.J. NWOKO: But it's become a difference maker because it takes some of the guesswork out of what Daanish is trying to say.

DILSHAD ALI: If he goes out with, let's say a caregiver, you know, they'll take the iPad with him and he's able to, like, indicate choices of where he's going or what he wants to eat or what he eats.

A.J. NWOKO: Xena Hernandez is beginning that journey with her six-year-old.

XENA HERNANDEZ: He says a lot without saying too much.




A.J. NWOKO: Xena says her son Nico...

COMPUTER VOICE: I like to eat pizza.

XENA HERNANDEZ: Good job. A.J. NWOKO: Was diagnosed with autism just before he turned two.

XENA HERNANDEZ: Up until that point, he was non-verbal. It was just a lot of vocal stimming.

A.J. NWOKO: By age four, he graduated from educational tools, like picture boards, to just about anything with a screen, like his AAC device.

XENA HERNANDEZ: Up until that point, he never answered a question before.

A.J. NWOKO: Then Xena witnessed a breakthrough.

XENA HERNANDEZ: I said, 'What color is this?' I pointed to something that was green and he went and he hit "green" on his AAC device, and it was like... I feel like- Sorry. It makes me emotional 'cause up until that point, I was just, that was honestly the first moment where I really had a sense of like, 'Alright, what I'm doing is working.'

A.J. NWOKO: Xena attributes Nico's recent verbal gains to AAC unlocking a wider range of vocabulary communication...

COMPUTER VOICE: My name is Nico. A.J. NWOKO: And spelling skills.

XENA HERNANDEZ: It's a channel for him to be able to learn things in ways that I wasn't able to teach him, or, like, "traditional" ways of teaching neurotypical children. We actually call this his voice.

A.J. NWOKO: Whether it's an iPad, a learning board, or anything else in between, researchers say these technologies are designed to hone in on the skills and strengths of those on the spectrum.

ALISSA BROOKE: We don't focus on deficits, other than, "What can we implement to support you so that we can reduce or eliminate what those barriers are?"

A.J. NWOKO: Melanie Derry and Alissa Brooke at VCU'S Rehabilitation Research and Training Center say success for those with autism comes down to access.

MELANIE DERRY: And the good news is that there's a huge push from the Department of Education to provide a lot of training around assistive technology so that we understand that it is both the supports, these items and tools, but also the services that we're providing individuals to use these tools.

A.J. NWOKO: Brooke says sometimes the best tools can be found right in our pockets.

ALISSA BROOKE: How can we turn what you already have into a tool that will help you? And so simple things that already exist on the phone have been extremely helpful. Alarms - and that can be in terms of getting ready for work, so that you set your day up well. We use technology to help to set up their transportation.

A.J. NWOKO: The researchers say technological advancements are opening up unexpected opportunities for those on the spectrum in school and in the workforce.

MELANIE DERRY: We know that there's a lot of research going on right now about how AI can play a part in helping to teach those soft skills that are, you know, going to help someone be employed and remain employed and have meaningful relationships.

A.J. NWOKO: That uncharted territory captured the eclectic mind of Ellie Bavuso.

ELLIE BAVUSO: I do both virtual reality research and artificial intelligence research, specifically focused around neurodivergent access, accessibility in higher education.

A.J. NWOKO: The VCU senior is also on the spectrum and wants others like her to be better at handling uncomfortable situations in higher education.

ELLIE BAVUSO: You have to go through the physical experience over and over again until you can have your pattern recognition pick up on, "Okay, what works? What doesn't work?"

A.J. NWOKO: With the help of a personalized headset and software like ChatGPT, she believes trial and error in the virtual world she's designing can translate into success in the real world when interacting with others.

ELLIE BAVUSO: Even people with high access needs can still be independent if they have their accommodation needs met.

A.J. NWOKO: Though the tech isn't quite there yet, Derry says all tools that can help improve the lives of those on the spectrum need to be explored.

MELANIE DERRY: My big push would be early intervention and getting devices and supports in the hands of students that are in preschool so that they don't have to wait until they come to school to begin learning how to communicate effectively.

XENA HERNANDEZ: It doesn't matter how they communicate; what's important is that they're able to communicate.


DILSHAD ALI: Yeah. We all need to be doing it in all environments to be able to maintain the usage of it. You know, to be able to say what he wants. You know, which definitely, I know what you want and what you don't want. We got to keep maintaining it.

COMPUTER VOICE: I want to eat.

A.J. NWOKO: For VPM News, I'm A.J. Nwoko.


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