UC Santa Cruz psychology prof develops language aids for hearing-impaired and autistic children

Twenty years ago, psychology professor Dominic Massaro never dreamed his investigation of how humans comprehend language and speech would benefit hearing-impaired and autistic children.

But his research into how auditory and visual cues work together to aid our comprehension of the spoken word attracted the attention of parents of children with language challenges. Eager for tools to help their children learn, they urged Massaro to market materials that use the facial animation software he'd developed for his academic research.

Massaro had a hunch his work could benefit children having difficulty learning language, whether due to sensory limitations, autism, learning disabilities, low socioeconomic status, or because they were learning English as a second language. His software had proved a powerful tutor during a research project with deaf and hearing-impaired children at a school in Portland, Oregon, and children at a Santa Cruz school for autistic children who used the technology had demonstrated vocabulary gains.

Massaro teamed up with an entrepreneur whose son is autistic, and Animated Speech Corporation (ASC) was born. So far, ASC has brought two products to market, the CD-ROMs Team Up with Timo: Vocabulary and Team Up with Timo: Stories.

Timo ("Tee-mo") is an animated tutor that helps children build their language skills. Timo introduces new words, gives children image and text cues that facilitate their learning, and gently urges students to try again when they make mistakes. Colorful graphics and engaging content--vocabulary lessons include segments on animals, geography, space, weather, people in history, and government--complete the package.

Children give the CD-ROMs high marks, according to speech-language pathologist Chris Soland, who works with about 36 children with severe to profound hearing loss at Tucker-Maxon Oral School in Portland. The children rave about Timo, she said.

"It's the first thing they ask when they come to work with me: 'Can I do Timo today?'" said Soland. "They love it. There's something very engaging about it, because it's interactive."

Children can practice their skills independently with the CD-ROMs, which make the CDs a great way to supplement classroom lessons, added Soland. "Most kids really enjoy adult attention, and this replicates that in a positive way," she said. "And it never gets tired! It's always available and ready to help them learn."

The results are impressive: Students at the Jackson Hearing Center in Palo Alto who used the tutoring software to boost their vocabulary had an average retention rate of 98 percent after 30 days, according to Massaro's research.

In studies with autistic children, Massaro found that children had an 85 percent retention rate of new words 30 days after they had learned them. Massaro says children like the immediate feedback they get while working with the program.

"It's the old-fashioned idea of time on task," added Massaro. "Children devote more time to it and get a better result."

Over the years, Massaro's research has been published in many of the top peer-reviewed journals in his field--the litmus test for academics. Reflecting on the "real-world" applications of what began as pure research, Massaro acknowledges a new and different sense of satisfaction.

"When I started in psychology, I never thought I'd do anything like this. I really stumbled into it," said Massaro. "It has been very rewarding. People tell us we've helped their kids, and that's great."


Editor's Note: Dominic Massaro may be reached at (831) 459-2330 or via e-mail at massaro@ucsc.edu.