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Ask an Expert: Lucas Steuber, Portland LanguageLab

In this week’s Ask an Expert, we chatted with Lucas Steuber of the Portland LanguageLab. Lucas has dual masters degrees in applied linguistics and speech-language pathology (SLP). The Portland LanguageLab is a collaborative project between SLPs, special educators, and engineers who use technology to help kids at any level of ability participate in everything that they want to do. If you find linguistics and speech-language development as fascinating as we do, you don’t want to miss this interview.

Tiggly: The Portland LanguageLab brings together speech-language pathologists, special-ed teachers, and app developers. What excites you most about touchscreen technology in the speech-pathology world?

Lucas Steuber: There’s a lot to say here! First of all, touchscreen electronics are already very engaging for kids at any level of ability. I think too often in the special education world we’ve kind of started from this perspective of “how do we make this kid interact with things the way we want them to,” when rightfully we need to find out what’s interesting to them and then start from there; come to their space during therapy, instead of trying to make them come to ours. iPads and other devices are already very interesting, especially among neurodiverse populations like kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder and others that we serve, so to whatever extent I can orient what I do around something that’s already up their alley, it’s a win-win. We need to shake this perception that just because something is fun, or colorful, or it seems like a game, that it’s unhealthy or doesn’t constitute “learning.”

Touchscreen from a specifically special education standpoint is very exciting because it allows kids with profound motor disabilities to interact with the world in a way that they might not otherwise be able to. How often does a kid in a wheelchair get to play in the mud, or throw a snowball, or mess up his room? That’s something that we really stand for at the LanguageLab – that we need to give kids access to fun and friendship just as badly as we need to give them access to learning. We need to address their disability, certainly, but we also need to let them be kids. If we can create materials that are so intrinsically motivating and fun that the actual “learning” is an unconscious component, so much the better. Tiggly does a great job of that.

Finally, the last piece that really excites us about Tiggly is obviously the manipulatives. It’s a component that’s really different and further breaks that fourth-wall barrier between the physical and virtual worlds, which helps us not only support the sort of cause-effect relationships we often work on in special education but also supports a lot of things that are sort of peripheral to my specific scope of practice but still very important, like fine motor ability. Engaging electronic devices that can do everything just mentioned above were only recently very expensive or nonexistent. Tiggly is a notable player in a real potential renaissance in technology in special education.

Tiggly: So what do you like best about Tiggly’s apps?

LS: Well, the main great thing about Tiggly’s apps is that through the manipulatives they provide access for kids to participate who otherwise might need a lot of support.

Your apps let kids with special needs create drawings and colorful scenes independently. From a language perspective, Tiggly apps provide multiple models of language concepts, such as labeling (like the animals in Tiggly Safari), spatial relations (up/down, next to, etc.), sequencing (following directions), and describing (colors and shapes). We’ll be using Tiggly with kids and families at our practice to provide opportunities for kids to be artists and to share what they create.

Tiggly: Is your goal to design apps primarily for children who are behind in their verbal skills, or do you see the appeal as more universal?

LS: Most of us at the LanguageLab are speech-language pathologists, which means we’re coming at this from a very language-centric lens, but that’s still a very broad topic. Even the word “verbal” you used above – actual verbalizations are only one very small component of communication.

It’s very difficult to separate thought from language; even simple things like the symbol-signifier relationships (circle -> owl = owl is circular) that are embedded in Tiggly are foundational to our knowledge of the world that is fundamentally integrated into our different linguistic systems like morphology, syntax, semantics, and more. Individuals also communicate across a whole range of modalities, from gesture to sign language to facial expressions and even touchscreen voice output devices, which is something we work a lot with at the LanguageLab. I’m sure it’s immediately evident how well Tiggly can help with training of a touchscreen communication device.

That said, yes, we want our apps and materials to be universal. We work with kids who have a wide range of abilities – the very definition of “neurodiverse.” Our overriding mantra every day is “think like a kid, think about how to play.” The primary objective of LanguageLab therapy is to foster social relationships between kids at all levels, and one really neat thing about apps and iOS and electronics is it really removes a lot of the social stigma around disabilities; that kid may be in a wheelchair, but he has an iPad, and that’s cool.

Tiggly: What small things can parents do to support their kids who are struggling a bit in their speech?

LS: This is a great question, and the answer’s a little complicated. First and foremost: If parents have concerns about communication, they should consult with a speech-language pathologist (find one here). I can talk a lot about different areas that we can help kids, but ultimately everybody develops a little bit differently and there’s a wide range of variability within ages and genders; like everyone, kids are the sum of a constellation of factors that constitute their identity, and therapy needs to be specific to their individual needs.

I guess the honest answer is “it depends.” It’s also always good to remember that being a mother or father takes enormous energy and commitment, and sometimes a parent just needs to be a parent — without having to work about the “therapy.”

That being said, there are lots of fun games and activities that you can play with your kids. We’ve been posting activities on our website with some clear goals.

In general, playing with your kids, reading with your kids, and having fun with your kids helps language development (and certainly can increase bonding and social skills). We like to recommend things like “self-talk.” Talk about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you feel about it. This helps kids develop their executive functioning (planning and organizing) skills.

For example, with my daughter, I might say something like, “We’re going to the store. We need some bread. We’re going to make sandwiches. Our sandwiches need bread. I’m glad that we’re going together.” These simple sentences let her know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what will happen next, and how I’m enjoying her company. We might even be able to teach new words this way.

Remember that kids need to hear new words thousands of times before they integrate them into their vocabulary. Using language is what we do everyday. We encourage families to use language to describe day-to-day stuff and all the special fun stuff, too!

Tiggly: Finally, what games did you play growing up that you think can support developing language skills?

LS: If anyone has been to our website, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a lunatic about games. My wife is actually starting to have some strong objections to the quantity of LEGOs in our house (which is why I’m hiding them in the office now).

We’ve written about board games a lot on our blog — and it goes back to the comment earlier about how it’s best to structure therapy around something that’s already engaging for the kids we work with. Games, like board games, aren’t the solution to every therapy goal but they do have a ton of potential power; they teach kids about social rules, organizing and planning, self-awareness and self-regulation, turn-taking, and even operating external representations of themselves. With games we learn how to talk to other people. Games have social scripts, ritualized language.

Just think of the card game Go Fish. You know that in this game you ask questions, like “Do you have a _________?”, and you answer with “yes” and give the person the card, or “no, go fish!” Games provide many, many chances for kids to practice specific language structures.

As a kid, I liked to play creative role play and imaginative games. I’m a little bit science fiction and a little bit fantasy adventure. The creative games that I played with my friends used complex terminology — fancy jargon for creatures, countries, planets, and more — and yet they still followed the same kinds of scripted rules for turn-taking and interacting.

Ultimately, when it comes to choosing what kinds of themes to incorporate with kids, the worst thing that I could do is bring my own agenda; it’s really all about them in that moment, and I can pretty much have fun doing anything (although Frozen is becoming a thematic exception).

We’re so excited at the LanguageLab to be working with companies like Tiggly that are creating games across new mediums. We do a ton of work in the physical space in terms of physical board games (we even built a Minecraft board game collaboratively with students recently), and we do a lot virtually — Tiggly’s a great next step because it can bring it all together.

Team Tiggly