“Hello,” an automated voice said as Smith, diagnosed with autism at age 3, pressed a sequence of symbols and typed text on the device.
“My name is Antoine,” the 28-year-old said to his father and classmates at the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in downtown Augusta last week. “I’m doing fine.”
Once completely nonverbal, Smith is making his bed, bathing himself and preparing his meals for the first time thanks to the technology, father Melvin Smith said.
His progress, all achieved in the past six months, has inspired a fundraiser in Augusta to purchase and distribute iPads to adults in the community with cognitive and communication challenges.
Mark Swanson, the president of Accent Inc., the service provider working with Antoine Smith to help him become more independent, is leading the campaign and hopes to raise $15,000, which he estimates could buy 20 to 25 iPads.
Swanson said the drive will culminate Oct. 26, when his company will join Columbus Community Services and Walton Options for Independent Living to hold a 5k walk and 10k bicycle and kayak races at Savannah Rapids Park to raise money for the effort.
“You talk about changing someone’s life,” Swanson said of Smith’s development since April, when he and his family downloaded the online application that helped the two communicate. “I get chills just thinking about it.”
Accent instructor Lee Moore remembers the days before Smith got an iPad. Frustrated by his inability to say he had a headache or was hungry, Smith was prone to throwing tantrums, sometimes escalating to the point of tossing chairs and pounding tables.
“Now, his behavior is much better,” Moore said. “He is very calm.”
Moore said he traces the shift to when the Smiths bought Antoine an iPad in March 2012 after seeing a segment on 60 Minutes on how new technology developed by Apple could substantially help autistic adults increase their language and cognitive skills.
The family started small, downloading a yes-no app for Antoine to answer simple questions. They then evolved to a puzzle program, for him to complete and start new jigsaws created from pictures taken of his family.
When he mastered each task unassisted, they advanced to Proloquo2Go, an application that enables people to talk using symbols or typed text in a natural-sounding voice that suits their age and character.
Melvin Smith said he and his wife nearly broke down in tears the first time their son told them he did not want breakfast.
“It may not sound like much to someone with a normal child, but to us, it was monumental,” he said. “It was a revelation, a truly powerful experience.”
He said his son eventually learned routine tasks, such as going to the bathroom, turning on the lights and washing his hands with soap before cutting off the appliances and coming back to the kitchen for dinner.
“The communication is seamless,” he said. “Autistic adults really take to computer programs because there is no social interaction. It is just them interacting on a piece of machinery in a structured and ordered environment.”
The progress wowed Swanson, who invited Melvin Smith, a member of his company’s parent advisory committee, to give demonstrations to his staff and administration.
“Earlier this year, we were trying to find something that we could get behind to solidify what we do as a group,” Swanson said. “This was it.”
Swanson said the fundraiser has 11 sponsors and is looking for more. Sponsorship packages range from $250 to $1,000 and offer recognition in online and radio ads, logo placement on printed T-shirts and promotional play in race packets.
Swanson said once the iPads are purchased, a panel will be selected to award them to applicants determined to be the most in need. Three training sessions will be provided to new users by speech therapists.
Swanson said the goal is to expand the fundraiser into a yearly event where 50 to 100 iPads are distributed annually to give people the voice they never had.
Melvin Smith said the event could be life-changing.
“The communication is still slow, but it is coming,” he said of his son’s progress. “We can see the potential and it provides hope.”