I thought I was raising him just the same as any parent would raise her child, but something was different. A month after he was born, we discovered his physical challenges.
When he was five months old, he suddenly stopped drinking baby formula. Thinking something was wrong, I rushed him to the doctor, where I was told that he had “serious allergies”. Not only was he allergic to milk, but also beans, flour, and eggs. I wondered how I was supposed to nurture a child that was allergic to such ingredients common in almost all foods.
I remember the days that I stood in the supermarket reading the ingredients label for every product that I picked up. Because I was not very good at English, I would stand there with a package in my hand as I tried desperately to read the label. My hand would become so cold to the point that it was numb each time I picked up a package of frozen food.
On top of all of his food allergies, Wataru was allergic to dust as well. Whenever he would have an allergic reaction I would have to wash everything from clothes, sheets, pillow cases and even curtains. The laundromat became like my workplace. I remember being troubled about not being able to get any reactions out of him even when I cradled him or called his name. At first I thought it was because of his allergies, but then began to think that he had autism.
When Wataru was a year old, I took him to the Hewlett Packard Children’s Hospital (Palo Alto, California). Knocking on the door of the children’s hospital, I was unaware that the second chapter of my life had begun…
Wataru was diagnosed with autism at the age of one.
I was told that,
“If his autism could be found this quickly, the possibilities of him even being able to speak are close to zero.”
Upon hearing this, I took it as,
“You will never be able to have a conversation with this child and never have a form of communication with him forever.”
And I felt as though I was pushed off of a cliff. During that time, I cared for my son, hoping that he would say at least one word. During the time, I heard that autistic children had a much easier time communicating through pictures rather than words, so I carried around a binder full of icons, which grew to 20 pounds.
Also, I always carried around all of the clothes, toys, food, and books my son would want. This made it impossible to physically comfort him when he got into a panic in a public place, and even more impossible to even hold his hand. My hands were always filled with all of the things he needed. But, Wataru’s icon binder was always in the way and I could never hug him because of it. But now, with the icons in my iPhone, I am able to help him anywhere at anytime.
Here is a news article about Wataru & Yumi’s family published in 2002.
Family finds hope in Silicon Valley, By Marian Liu, San Jose Mercury News
Communication Device, Insurance, Attorney, SLP
I bought a conventional communication device with medical insurance. But, it took the device half a year to get to me after applying for insurance. During that time, the therapists’ fees was more than $1,000, and I needed another $1,000 to get an attorney to negotiate with the insurance company. When I finally got the device, my son’s teachers and therapists told me that the device was not fit for him and he would never use it.
Since the device was bulky and almost impossible to carry around with everything else my son needs, I decided to purchase a new application on the iPhone. This cost much less than the conventional communication device. This application had too many different functions and was complicated to use for my son, so he didn’t want to use it. His speech therapist who had 25 years of experience couldn’t use it, and her engineer who has a Ph.D. from Stanford wasn’t able to use it either.
This motivated me to create the Voice4u application.
At first, I was thinking of doing this Voice4u project as a weekend job. But the more I talked about this app, the more people got excited and involved. I decided to incorporate this business with people from a variety fields; entrepreneurs and an expert in software engineering with Ph.D. from Stanford University.
The engineer has tutored my son for about 3 years while he was studying at Stanford. When he finished his Ph.D. in 2009, he had several opportunities to work in aerospace research and industry (plus gigantic software companies), but he decided to dedicate himself to supporting autism through technology. According to him, “I spent a quarter of my life to study just for my interest. But now, I want to help people by applying what I’ve gained through education. There are a number of people who immediately need supports and technical solutions. I should solve problems on Earth first (then think about the universe =) )”
So, this is how Voice4u was created. We continue to work to improve product and support as many people as possible. Presently, we have as customers autistic children across a wide variety of ages, and all of them have learned to use the product in less than a few minutes. The Voice4u app has also proved valuable for people who have suffered strokes or other speech disabling events. Anyone can use it, and it is possible to add up to a 1,000 new icons and sentences. I personally believe that economic and emotional burdens for families with autistic or physically disabled members should be lessened. I hope this app will help.
Facing Countless Challenges
When I was informed that my son may have autism, I was sent to another specialized hospital. It wasn’t until several months later that he was diagnosed with autism. He was put into specialized classes for his early childhood education. He had already learned several things like how to distinguish between the different colors.
A speech therapist was sent to my house to teach me sign language too. I had assumed that the first signs she would teach me would be words like “no”, “don’t touch that”, “be quiet”, or “that’s dangerous”, but I turned out to be completely wrong. The first sign she taught me was what gave me courage to continue on without losing hope. Those words were – “I love you”. This was the sign language taught to me so that I could express my feelings towards my one and only son.
Wataru constantly faced challenges with language and communicating his thoughts. I kept remembering what I was told by the child neurologist when he was a year old: “he may never say a word in his entire life”. This thought wouldn’t leave my head. All I wanted was for him to have said just one word by the time he turned twenty. Despite this claim that the doctor made, the speech therapist told me that even though the doctor said that he may never talk, she thought differently. She assured me saying, “We are the ones teaching him. It’s okay. There’s no need for you to worry”. I was glad to see that I was not alone.
Other problems I faced with my son’s autism were his panic attacks and constant attempts to run away.
He also had allergic reactions to the medicines prescribed to him to control his sleep disorder, which was another large issue.
This second part of my life felt as if I was working to stop a ticking bomb. If that bomb went off, it was hard to regain control of my son’s panic attacks and allergies. Through all of these struggles, I discovered one thing. It was noticeably easier to control the severity of his panic attacks if I could communicate with him by using images. If I managed to communicate with him, the number of panic attacks would decrease significantly. I discussed this with our speech therapist, and decided to carry icons with me wherever I went. As his knowledge expanded, the file of icons grew fatter and fatter until it weighed over 10 pounds. I constantly had to carry this heavy file, along with a change of clothes, food (without allergens), and if he had a panic attack, I would have to carry him too.
Another thing that turned out to be problematic was his love for pretty women. Whenever he encountered somebody he liked, he would walk up to her and shake her hand. Handling him while carrying the binder was a challenge!
When he was five years old, his allergies sent him into an asthma attack. He was hospitalized immediately, for he even lost consciousness. The bomb had gone off. Just what I had feared most had become a reality. This may be the last time I see my son… grim thoughts circled inside my head. The doctors even told me to contact my family and relatives. They kept on giving him shots and IV’s, but he remained unconscious. Wataru’s sister, Kaho and I stayed by his side throughout the night, on the verge of tears. Come morning, he finally woke up. The nurses had just switched shifts, and the man that had been helping us earlier was replaced by a pretty, young girl.
I thought Wataru was going to hug Kaho and I as soon as he saw us by his side, but… well, I should’ve known better. The first thing he did upon regaining consciousness was get up and shake the pretty nurse’s hand. Kaho and I cried while laughing at the actions of our precious Wataru. Even during his stay at the hospital, “Are you thirsty?”, “Does it hurt?”, and “Where’s Thomas the Tank Engine?” were parts of almost all conversations, and this meant always using that same heavy icon file. If only it were a little more compact, it would be so much easier to use, even in the hospital.
Created by Professionals
Through all of these episodes, Wataru had grown into teenager that he is now. Our house was always filled with people. Amongst those people coming over were individuals involved with tech companies. That is how the topic of the iPhone first came up. I said, “I had always thought this since he was a little boy, but it would be really helpful to autistic kids if we could put icons on the iPhone”.
I showed them the application I already had in my iPhone for these purposes, but on top of being nearly impossible to understand and use, the pictures were bad and it was incredibly expensive. Even though I had spent so much money on it, I had become tired of trying to figure it out, and it became immediately useless. In response to my thoughts, the two people that were with me that day said, “We can make something like this ourselves. Let’s do it.”
When I told the speech therapist about this idea, she said, “Yumi, that wouldn’t be helpful to just Wataru. It would be helpful to all kids with autism. It would be so great if you could make it available to them.”
After this, my conversations with our speech therapist always revolved around Voice4u. Teachers became involved as well, along with others that hold similar jobs to that of speech therapists, and even teachers from other schools. Occupational therapists, other parents, and kids with autism all gathered to share their ideas about this soon to be new application. They continue to test upgrades and modifications.
Now, I’ll explain why Voice4u’s characters all look like aliens.
The alien looking characters were developed because specialists, the teachers and speech therapists recommended that the icons not wear clothes and not have hair.
This was because kids may become distracted if they notice that one icon’s clothing or hair is a little different than that of another icon. They also recommended that the images be vivid. These suggestions are what led to the birth of our alien-like characters.
Based on user input, we also made sure that our characters have bodies rather than being stick figures.
It is possible to add up to 1,000 icons, so add any icons that look for you.
The audio on Voice4u is of a fairly low pitch. Many people have very sensitive hearing and are therefore made uncomfortable by high voices. In consideration of this problem, we carefully chose an individual with a clear and low voice to provide audio for our icons.
When you listen to the voice, we hope that you are happy with the clarity and quality of it.
A Little Angel
Now, to get back to the story of my son. Around the time that he was first diagnosed with autism, a lady volunteering at the hospital said to me,
“You see, children born with developmental disabilities are like little angels living every moment of life to the fullest in their hearts. I would be more than happy to help any such angel”.
Although it may take time for your friend or loved one to get used to our product, we hope that you will be able to hear the voice little by little. If we are able to be of even the slightest assistance to all of those who use our product, nothing could make the Voice4u team happier.
4. Easy Design
The team in charge of product development said,
“There is nothing that you can’t do on an iPhone/Android App, so please, share all of your ideas with us”.
Because I had struggled so much with communication devices for more than ten years, I shared with them loads upon loads of ideas and suggestions, being sure to include the ideas of specialists and parents as well. The people on the product development team took each and every one of these ideas into consideration, doing their best to incorporate as many desired features as possible. We especially paid attention to the user interface (UI).
- Keep it simple!We did not add lots of confusing features to Voice4u. If the app is overly complicated, it’s difficult for the user. It is important to first become comfortable with using the product to communicate with others. We focused on this idea when developing this application.
- Icons can easily be added
If you tap on the “add” button at the bottom of the screen of any icon, anybody can easily create a new icon.
- The user can concentrate even when the application is booting up
Many people don’t like to wait. Voice4u has an entertaining loading screen with icons, making a user curious about what will appear on the screen next. This helps hold the attention of even a hyperactive child.
- Easy to use program flows/operates smoothly
You can scroll through the icons smoothly and choose the one you wish to use.
Other applications may crash just by tapping too far on the edge of the screen, or the audio become like an echo if you tap on an icon consecutively. This can be a problem for any user. We have made sure that Voice4u is as reliable as possible.
The heart of the product was developed with great care. We look forward to this product being able to assist you for a long time.
*1: CDC Reports Autism Prevalence Rate of 1 In 110 American Children, 1 In 70 Boys