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DynaVox Maestro gives 10-year-old with autism chance to communicate

Speech language pathologist LaurCzerwinski (left) Naperville works with Zakari Johns(right) bdi Playhouse Children's Therapy. Czerwinski said she uses physical things

Speech and language pathologist Laura Czerwinski (left) of Naperville, works with Zakari Johnson (right) at bdi Playhouse Children's Therapy. Czerwinski said she uses physical things in the gym, like the swing, because it encourages children to talk and vocalize because they're relaxed and having fun. Jane Donahue/For Sun-Times Media/Naperville Sun 20110824 Wednesday,Naperville

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By the numbers


Autism affects one of 110 children


Boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism

1.5 million

Estimated number of individuals in the U.S. affected by autism

35 billion

Autism costs the nation more than this per year, a figure expected to significantly increase in the next decade

Did you know?

The DynaVox Maestro retails for $7,820 and is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and some private health insurance plans.

On the web

To learn more about bdi Playhouse Children’s Therapy in Naperville, visit

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Updated: November 9, 2011 12:24PM

Zakari Johnson was diagnosed with autism at age 2, and has been nonverbal for most of his life. But thanks to an innovative communication tool and a mom who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, Zakari has a voice.

Last month Zakari, 10, of Aurora began using the DynaVox Maestro, a hand-held communication device, recommended by speech and language pathologist Laura Czerwinski. In a short time, Zakari is learning to communicate using the device’s buttons to formulate words and sentences.

“I am elated because this gives my son a voice,” Felicia Johnson said. “The DynaVox will give him a chance to build his self esteem. He’ll be able to do things for himself — like order at a restaurant — and interact with other children.”

According the DynaVox website, the device “gives individuals with speech and language disabilities the confidence to make their voices heard in every situation by putting the focus on communication, not the method by which that communication is achieved.” It has a retail price of $7,820, but is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and some private insurance plans.

Czerwinski, part of the team at bdi Playhouse Children’s Therapy in Naperville, saw the device as a way to help Zakari, and contacted a local DynaVox representative about getting a trial unit.

“Zakari is 10 and doesn’t have a way to communicate,” Czerwinski said. “In just two weeks, he knows how to navigate through a couple of these screens, find what he wants, and ask for it. He is going to feel successful. He wants to do things for himself, and he should.”

Czerwinski said, often parents are hesitant about giving their child a communication device, because they worry it will hinder the child’s speech, and be a substitute rather than an aid.

Johnson said she raised those questions, too.

“That was a concern for me at first, but after Laura showed me how it would actually help him to communicate — not prevent him from talking — I agreed to try it,” she said. “The introduction of the device will not be the end of his speech, just the beginning.”

In fact, during a recent session, Zakari used his DynaVox to choose the swing as an activity at bdi Playhouse. Then, without the device, he said “go” for the first time ever — telling Czerwinski in his own words — what he wanted to do.

In just a few weeks, the new device has made positive changes in Zakari’s life. But it’s the smile on his face, after he successfully uses the DynaVox, which speaks for itself.

“I believe in my son, and I see his potential,” Johnson said. “I see how he is doing in other activities outside of school. I know with a little push and one-on-one aid, Zakari can do anything any other child can do.”

Johnson said the team at bdi Playhouse, where he also receives physical therapy, has given her hope.

“I am really happy about how well Laura is working with him, and the support we have had from bdi Playhouse. If he had been here early on when he was first diagnosed, he would probably be farther along. I am sure he would be more verbal.”

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