Success & News Stories

Evan Heilman

Preteen using Maestro to conduct conversation on his terms


During Sunday afternoon football games, Evan Heilman likes huddling around the TV with his family – mom Carol, dad Greg, his twin brother Drew and sister Brooke. He likes puttering in the kitchen and faithfully packs his own lunch for school. With the same diligence, he helps with distribution and delivery of faculty mail at Eden Hall Upper Elementary School near his home in Wexford, Pennsylvania, usually stopping to chat with the office staff.  Though not one to seek the spotlight, Evan seems at ease when others, whether adults or kids, listen to what he has to say.  

That means a lot, given how Evan, 12, has often felt stranded in conversations. Joining in is not always easy because of the verbal communication challenges associated with his autism. It is, for instance, a pretty big deal when Evan asks Drew and Brooke, 14, to play a computer game, for it is rare that Evan shows desire for interaction overtly. Yet he continues to make strides in reading, writing, speaking and connecting with his world. All the while, he learns and has fun as he communicates on his own terms. The DynaVox Maestro keeps the process carefree. 

It is Evan’s second augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, and it’s with him nearly always and everywhere these days. Through the device, Evan does interactive whiteboard assignments with typical peers in his fifth grade class, initiates his evening ritual by telling his parents he’s ready to pack his lunch and shares news with school friends.  

Evan classroom

“I am excited to go to the beach over summer vacation,” Evan told the office workers one chilly winter morning, with familiar vocabulary preprogrammed into the device and a happy expression on his face. “We are going to stay at the same house in Bethany Beach. There will be lots of kids to play with.” A large photo of the house linking to the vocabulary makes communication easier and more meaningful for him. Similarly efficient set-ups provide the language and visual elements that Evan needs to discuss favorite foods or a recent neighborhood walk. His mom, Carol, downloads images from the Internet to help him. “We can program it as we go,” she said. Pictures of places they plan to visit or things they plan to do as a family become part of the device content, giving Evan a sense of comfort about new experiences because he can see what’s coming. The device’s onboard camera offers another source for up-to-date photos

Before adopting the Maestro as his voice last spring, Evan had used the DynaVox V for a few years. Several keys to his success remain in place as he steps farther along the avenue of opportunity that the technology presents. There are his ever-increasing device navigation skills, which come as little surprise, given his natural bent toward visual learning and gift for remembering thing sequentially. Evan is a good typist and uses the device keyboard for school assignments. He also uses the Gateway page set, which works hand-in-hand with the Maestro’s InterAACt language framework, giving Evan ample language, tailored to his abilities and age, while working toward goals such as constructing sentences independently.  
Evan has also used the device to compose and send emails from school to home and vice versa, extending his use of the “News from School” and “News from Home” pages on current DynaVox devices. Both practices have proven effective in keeping everybody on Evan’s team in the loop on his daily activities and progress.

The day Evan participated in a “Mystery State” game toward the end of his fourth grade year at Eden Hall is a fond memory for his parents. Standing in front of the classroom, he gave spoken clues to the identity of a U.S. state through the Maestro. Students also pondered visual clues projected from the device screen onto a whiteboard, busily writing answers that popped into their minds as Evan conducted the activity. “Socially, it was fantastic for him,” Carol Heilman said. “Whiteboard activities are such a nice way to make him the center of the class.”

Classmates totally support Evan’s device use, said Carol Huber, the para-educator who stays with Evan throughout his school day, which consists of regular and autistic support classes. Between classes, they ask him questions about his family or weekend, and encourage him to use the Maestro to say what he wants to do at recess so they’re sure to understand. Evan relies on the clarity and continuity that the technology brings to his interactions, and it has influenced his ongoing development of natural speech. Once Evan went to his job at the school office without the device (which was being charged) and did the unexpected, Huber said. He had a conversation, uttering a familiar preprogrammed message in his natural voice.

“Needless to say we were all choked up.  It was difficult for him to get all the words out, but he did!”

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