The Aurora Symbols Story
“Why is my daughter averse to using these AAC devices and apps? What will it take to spark her interest?”
When he investigated, Erik found that the bulky proprietary devices and their software were clunky and difficult to customize. And the apps available on the Apple iPad were overpriced and too cluttered and confusing for lower functioning children. Asking around, he consulted with special education teachers and friends of his in the autism community. They all agreed: The options available to kids in AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) left a lot to be desired!
Could Erik create something better?
Dana Pelke, a friend of Erik’s since preschool, had a master’s in special education and a deep passion for helping her students express their thoughts, wants, and needs. When Erik approached her about helping him design an app for his daughter, Dana enthusiastically agreed and saw an opportunity to help her students as well. “Could we design something better?” she thought. “Yes,” she decided. “We have to try!”
Together, Erik and Dana approached Erik’s father, Norman to join their budding team and help create artwork for their nascent design. They had ideas and Norman had the skills to make those ideas beautiful. Norman, an artist with a 50-year career in commercial illustration, was pleased to help his son and his granddaughter, Miranda. Maybe he could help her “speak.” And maybe he could help other children, too.
Better Symbols Were Needed
One of the issues that bothered the newly-minted team was the quality of the illustrations that appeared in all the AAC apps and devices on the market. The STICK FIGURES. As fully capable, neurotypical adults, not even Erik and Dana could resolve what some of the stick figures represented when they removed their labels. They simply weren’t GOOD ENOUGH in their eyes, which is why they had approached Norman to join the team. Not only could he help make the app more beautiful to interact with…but he could illustrate more realistic “symbols” for these nonverbal children. They deserved the best, so Norman resolved to create the best symbol set library.
Three years later, he had illustrated symbols for every word in the vocabulary library Dana had researched and written for their app design. The Aurora Symbol set library was born.
What’s in a Name?
A year into the project, Erik had settled on the name “Avatalker;” a contraction of “Avatar” and “Talker.” An Avatar is an expression of the divine within the everyday world. It’s a representation, an emissary of the creator’s will, brought down to the human level. Just as a nonverbal child’s thoughts are divine, that divinity needed an avatar. Their need to speak needed AVATALKER.
A Better Interface Was Key
But it had to be different. Most AAC apps designed around a core vocabulary were cramming wants-and-needs selection together with phrase building features. The result was a grid-like distracting nightmare for children with limited attention span and/or limited fine motor skills. “It’s difficult,” the team agreed, “to ask children like Miranda to focus long enough to hunt and peck for their communication needs.” They had to shake things up.
The answer seemed obvious to Erik and Dana. Wants and needs selection had to be separated from phrase building. But that wasn’t enough. Wants and needs selection is simple to design for ease-of-use. The phrase building, however, had to minimize the need to type and cut down on the number of screen touches. “And could we give kids the tools to create complete sentences? With grammar?” they asked. YES. They could.
As co-designer of Avatalker, Erik was responsible for formulating the grammar rules that governed how sentences would be built in the app. As he was an English major in college, he had the technical editing knowledge needed to break down the four major sentence archetypes in the English language, and devise a method by which sentences could be efficiently built without typing. Just as importantly, he figured out a way to teach a development team how it would work!
Aurora Symbols Finds a Partner
By 2013 the Aurora Symbols team had found a technology partner in Tennessee to help them realize their dream of building Avatalker. Development began in May of 2013 and involved daily interaction between the developer and the Aurora Symbols team. Avatalker AAC quickly took shape and by October of that year, their prototype app was building phrases like a champ!
Avatalker launched in January of 2014, with a tour across the United States of many of the major assistive technology and autism conventions. Erik, Dana, and Norm couldn’t wait to share this wonderful new app! Avatalker was a hit at shows like ATIA, Bridging the Gap, Autism One, and the National Autism Convention. Wherever the team erected a booth, convention attendees swamped their demonstrations! Avatalker was such a hit at the NAC show that the National Autism Association chose to endorse Avatalker AAC. Consequently, they included the app as a key component to their “Give a Voice” program, whereby needy families that required a communication device for their nonverbal child could obtain a free iPad, pre-loaded with Avatalker AAC. A year later in 2015, the NAA had awarded Erik Nanstiel with their annual “Jo Pike Believe Award.” Just one individual is awarded this honor each year.
Miranda Finds her “Voice”
So what of Erik’s daughter Miranda? Did she take to using and relying on Avatalker?
YES! After a few fits and starts, Erik was able to introduce Avatalker to his daughter, who quickly overcame her aversion to communicating with a device and mastered swiping and selecting her wants and needs in the app’s “Stage 1.” It went so well that Erik was successful in getting Miranda’s IEP team at school to include Avatalker AAC as part of her communication strategy in her Individual Education Plan. While Miranda to this day remains nonverbal, she has enjoyed being relieved of the frustration of her inability to communicate specific needs. The benefits manifested in improved behaviors and a generally happier child!
Fast Forward to Today
In 2020, Aurora Symbols has expanded and hired a marketing partner, Tag Marketing, LLC based in the Chicago area. With a new website and new apps about to enter the market, Aurora Symbols is poised to become a robust software provider to service the needs of special education students, their teachers, and caretakers. The original passion that Erik, Dana, and Norman brought to helping a single child with nonverbal autism has grown into a mission to help all special needs children with the tools they require to communicate and live happier lives.