Success & News Stories


10-year-old finds gifts of speech and writing through AAC technology

You need not go far to hear the definitive voice of ten-year-old Ewan Nees. Just "like' The Autism Life Facebook page and treat yourself to the original Ewan-isms posted there almost daily. 

The eclectic mix of messages is at once deep:
"Mom, listen. The ocean is quiet"

and light:
"Don"t you just love bacon? It"s just so…so…so perfect."

Each is infallibly sensitive.

What the casual reader of the proclamations may not know is that Ewan is enjoying some rare but real long-term advantages of early augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) intervention. He speaks clearly. His writing skills are improving. Ewan no longer needs the DynaVox MT4 that served as his voice for several years. Yet his vivid memory of how language looked and sounded on the portable AAC device is a driving factor in his current success.

When it became apparent that Ewan could speak in his natural voice, his parents donated the MT4 to a hospital speech and therapy clinic. So his mother, Alicia Hart found it pretty amazing when Ewan recently drew pictures representing spelling words from school and wrote the corresponding word above the drawing—a grid format strikingly similar to the vocabulary display on his old AAC device.

She asked her son what he sees in his head as he thinks his way through such activities. His ready reply:


The connection couldn"t be missed. Ewan had used multiple folders on the MT4 to organize his vocabulary into categories—food, drinks, technology, materials and more. Drawings by Ewan on the Facebook page, including a restaurant scene depicting what the word "reservation' means to him, are seemingly reminiscent of his device days.

"Ewan thinks like the DynaVox,' Hart said. "When he first received the MT4, he inhaled vocabulary like air.' Ewan had much to say despite communication challenges due to autism. Primarily non-verbal during his early childhood, his mom believed that he wanted to communicate and hoped that he would do so independently someday. Given his strong visual memory and affinity for technology, it made sense that an AAC device would be part of the equation.

When Hart took two-year-old Ewan for a speech-language evaluation, she usually had to guess what he needed or wanted except in occasional instances where his actions made it obvious. He almost constantly had his Thomas the Train toy with him, so she knew it was his favorite. Sometimes Ewan communicated through the look on his face. Or he used gestures—and eventually sign language, despite the physical awkwardness of using his hands.

"He would climb the wall to communicate with you,' said Deborah Casey-Harvey, M.S., CCC-SLP, the speech-language pathologist (SLP) who conducted the assessment at her private practice in Indianapolis, IN where Ewan"s family lived at the time. "It was very obvious that he wanted to.'  Ewan tried out several AAC devices that day. Casey-Harvey said he was "magnetized' by the technology and quickly realized that he could use it for expressing simple requests and preferences as they played with a toy parking garage that captivated him. Ewan differed from many other children, Casey-Harvey said, in that he automatically associated the devices with spoken communication.  "He seemed to intuitively know that it had a purpose.' Using one of the trial devices without prompting, Ewan asked for pancakes. His mom delighted in the spontaneity and specificity of his request.

Ewan"s family soon moved back to their home state of Illinois, where Stacey Vitale, M.S., CCC-SLP, now the lead speech therapist at Sara Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon had a key role in his communication journey. While he showed promise in learning language through technology, initiating and sustaining interaction did not come easily. He had to be taught aspects of communication often taken for granted (like greeting people) and he learned quickly.

Within the next five months, Ewan"s expressive language skills jumped. Vitale saw it in his smoother spontaneous verbalizations, and even more so when he used the MT4, which she had recommended for its positive effects on his expressive and receptive skills in areas such as following instructions, staying on task, taking turns and combining words  meaningfully.

Their unique therapy sessions included many theme-based social narratives and activities. Ewan focused intently on the themes while having fun. Vitale"s "all-time favorite' was three sessions with a yard sale theme. Ewan brought sale items from home, and wrote the word and price for each on a poster, an exercise in raising his comfort level with handwriting. Vitale imported digital images of the items (including pepperoni sticks and lemonade) to the MT4, which also helped make the project carefree.  "If the real photo doesn"t look exactly like the event that is happening, it can be stressful' for children with autism, Vitale said. At the third session, Ewan held a successful yard sale for friends on the hospital staff, using his MT4 to ease their interactions.

Hart said her son would not be as healthy or educated as he is today if not for the device. The MT4 became a tool that helped Ewan manage migraine headaches and eosinophilic esophagitis, or EoE, a painful esophageal disorder, when diagnosed with both at the age of four. He"d say "My brain is on fire,' with the aid of the device when he felt a migraine coming on. The device allowed him to be specific when describing swallowing difficulties and chest pain he experienced. Once Ewan could put words to what ailed him and therefore access appropriate treatment, he felt better.   

While Vitale used an approach called Food Chaining to address Ewan"s EoE issues, they worked as a team with his parents on food-centered communication. Ewan practiced mealtime social skills in a therapy session with a Thanksgiving theme. During another, he delivered milkshakes on the hospital"s heart unit.  He used the MT4 to greet patients and take their orders.

Ewan now lives in Florida with his sister Skye,17, brother Vaughn,8, their mother and father, Anthony Nees. His MT4 has become a gift to the Sara Bush Lincoln clinic. After discussing Ewan"s recent strides in speech and writing with another SLP, Hart decided to experiment. She put a symbol app, organized into several "beach' folders, on her mobile phone to help him compose a story about a place he loves, adapting to the fact that Ewan"s hands cannot always keep up with his sharp mind. "Using the symbols to help him think,' Hart said, "he came up with a story of 36 sentences in less than 6 minutes. I couldn"t type as fast he imagined it all up.' His teacher loved the story, she said, and praised his skillful work.

With similar help from mom, Ewan responded prolifically via email to interview questions for this success story.  He told us that his family and friends are nice, calm and friendly, and that gym class is his favorite at school. Ewan indicated that he"ll probably remember for a long time to come that the MT4 gave him a sound way to say "No' when he struggled to tell others. "If they don"t know your feelings and you can"t make them (known), that"s a problem,' he said.  "You need to express those things.'

One Ewan-ism tenderly expresses his feelings toward those closest to them in words most ten-year-olds can relate to: "You"re not grounded from family.'

Vitale saw Ewan"s communication independence in action when his family met hers a year or so at a Florida airport. Ewan and his brother held up a sign he had made to greet them and plunged right into a conversation about a favorite video game. His engaging way was refreshing though not a total surprise, Vitale said.

 "He has been such a learning experience for me from when I first met him.'

Learn more about the relationship between AAC use and natural speech development here!

Find a Sales ConsultantFind a Sales Consultant

Please enter your zip code:

Implementation Toolkit

Implementation Toolkit

Valuable, real-life resources and suggestions for implementing AAC to encourage successful communication in school, at home and in the community. Learn more »

ResourcesHelpful Resources

We offer helpful resources that give you the opportunity to become an expert in the tools you use every day.

DynaVox OverviewWatch Video

A team of people dedicated to helping others communicate for over 20 years. Watch Video »

Sign up for emailsConnect with Us

Find Help in
Your Area

Providing device demonstrations and helping you through the funding process.

Implementation Toolkit

The Implementation Toolkit is a collection of video and print-based resources created to help you facilitate successful interaction using AAC.

Sign up for Emails