The first time Claire Sonnenberg turned on a light, just with her thoughts alone, her face also lit up.
“Her smile just said it all,” remembers Claire’s mother, Stephanie Sonnerberg. “It was one of the best feelings I could have had for her.”
The six-year-old Calgary girl was born with cerebral palsy. She cannot speak and many movements are also challenging.
“It can be very difficult to watch because she has so much to say and she wants to do so much, but her body and diagnosis really limit how she can convey her movements and her words,” says Stephanie Sonnenberg.
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Kids like Claire have access to a number of options when it comes to adaptive technology. The technology can rely on small hand movements or read small directions from the child’s eyes. The Thank2Switch device, developed by researchers at the Universities of Calgary and Alberta, uses brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to turn a child’s thoughts into action.
“With the brain control interface, we can just put sensors on someone’s skull. It’s non-invasive, it detects what the brain signals are doing,” says Dr. Kim Adams, University of Alberta Assistive Technology Laboratory. “In Claire’s case, she thinks about kicking and it fires up part of her motor cortex and says, ‘Oh! I need to make a switch output immediately.’”
That switch output comes from the Think2Switch, a device that is compatible with most commercially available BCI headsets, as well as numerous devices that are switch-adapted, meaning they have been modified to be more accessible.
“(Think2Switch) can control a lot of things,” Adams says. “The assisted technology world has created many switch-adapted toys and they can even be used for power mobility (like wheelchairs).”
The device helped the Sonnenbergs integrate the technology into Claire’s daily life. Using it, she can now participate in preparing dinner, baking and family games.
“We can play musical chairs and she’s the DJ,” says Stephanie. “She makes pasta, she plays video games. We try to find a new activity to add to it once a month.’
BCI is not a new technology, but its applications for children with complex physical needs are quickly becoming more accessible to families.
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“It’s pretty amazing how far this technology has come in the last 20 years, but it’s really been in the last seven or eight years that it’s really taken off,” says Dr. Eli Kinney-Lang, Principal Scientist of the University of Calgary’s BCI4Kids Program.
“Part of what’s exciting about working with kids is that they have the ability to really learn this technology in a way that (adults) might struggle with and it gives them opportunities to develop in a lot of ways that they see develop.”
Claire’s mother says it introduced her daughter and the rest of the family to a whole new world. A world, she hopes, will one day include an opportunity for Claire to use BCI to help with communication and mobility as well.
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