'Helping my autistic daughter to communicate with us has been very emotional ...'
Losing his job was a blessing in disguise for Rob Laffan, who, after 17 years out of school, enrolled in college and built a device that helped his non-verbal daughter to communicate
Rob Laffan had to blink away tears when his four-year-old daughter told him she was happy. It was a watershed moment for the 38-year-old former pizza delivery man.
Sadie has autism and experiences great difficulty with verbal communication - but here she was using her daddy's own high-tech invention to express her feelings.
"I got a message from her saying 'Daddy I am happy!' Then Sadie went over on the sofa and jumped up and down looking at me," he recalls.
Laffan has just finished his final year degree course in Industrial Automation and Robotic Systems - one of the most challenging programmes in the third-level engineering sector.
And he completed his course on a wave of triumph. The former van driver, factory worker and pizza delivery man, who says he "hadn't lifted a pen or a book" in the 17 years before he started the course, was selected as the winner of the prestigious Engineers Ireland Innovative Student Engineer of the Year Award.
The final year automation and control engineering student at Limerick Institute of Technology won the award for his project titled 'Tippy Talk' which he developed as a result of first-hand experience with Sadie.
'Tippy Talk' involves the use of automation technology for communicating across a range of non-verbal disabilities. The device allows the user to select a want, need and feeling,all of which are pre-loaded, in the form of a variety of images on to a touch screen.
The user's chosen desire is then articulated in the form of an SMS sent directly to the carer's mobile phone. While apps with this functionality exist there is currently no dedicated device on the market.
Rob, from Limerick's Old Cork Road, had held down a number of different jobs since leaving school, and had been a van driver for the previous nine, when he lost his job in 2010.
"I couldn't find work; at the time there weren't any jobs so I researched the situation to see where the jobs were," he says.
Once he realised that the automation and control engineering course boasted a 100pc employment record, he went straight for it and signed up for the programme with the support of a mature grant and a Back to Education Allowance:
As to what exactly was involved, he says, he "had no idea, not a clue, but I was sick of being on the dole and I wanted to get back to work.
It's one of the toughest courses on the engineering prospectus, he says, and that first year at Limerick Institute of Technology was very difficult.
"I was 17 years out of education. I hadn't lifted a pen or opened a book in those 17 years and I felt like jacking it in a few times!," he laments.
Sadie was born on September 2010, just around the time he lost his job, and she was two-years-old when he became a student at LIT.
By the time Sadie was 18-months-old, he recalls, he and his wife Emily realised there was something wrong. "We knew we needed to look into it. Autism was the first thing that popped up.
"I was only about six weeks into the course when the suspicions were raised and by the time I finished my first year at LIT we had the diagnosis."
In second year, Rob got the idea for what would eventually develop into the Tippy Talk prototype - which he decided would form the basis of his final-year college project. The idea began to take form at the beginning of third year when, late one night, he got a brainwave.
"Sadie used to sleep only two or three hours a night at one stage During one of these late nights, I was standing at the back door when my phone beeped. Sadie grabbed it and came out to me.
"At the time I was studying a module on human/machine interface and as part of it we were learning to write code in which engineers in a factory would be alerted by text if a process went wrong."
Suddenly he made a crucial connection. Sadie had a whole library of laminated pictures which she used to communicate her needs and feelings to her family.
"They were all Velcro-ed and stuck inside a book and she would show us these pictures to communicate what she wanted.
"However, the pages were getting lost and ripped and torn and were costly to replace so I decided to upload these pictures onto a touch-screen.
"Every time Sadie selected a picture, it would send a verbal text message."
Rob worked on his idea for months and his lecturers were so impressed by the results that they advised him to enter it into the competition.
"One of the things that sticks out most is an incident two or three weeks ago when my wife and I were talking about going to the chipper to get a takeaway."
Emily suggested that Rob get Sadie some onion rings. Sadie overheard - but she had other ideas. By the time Rob arrived at the chipper there was a text message on the phone from Sadie.
It said: "Hi Daddy I'm hungry. I want chicken nuggets."
It was a very emotional moment, Rob recalls. And the fun has continued.
"Last Sunday I was cutting the grass and Sadie sent me a text saying she wanted to go shopping - she had touched an image of Rob, so that the message would be sent to him, then an image for want - "a lady holding her hands out" - and finally an image of the local Parkway Shopping Centre.
"When I got in she was standing by the front door with her coat in her hand, all ready to go. I abandoned the grass and we went shopping!"
"It's early days yet," Rob says, but he and Emily can already see a significant improvement in their daughter's behaviour and general demeanour.
"I only starting testing it with her at the end of April but she's less frustrated. She knows she's getting her message across and that we understand her better and that we can act on it.
"It's still very emotional because there are lovely messages coming through," he said, adding that the family are looking forward to eldest daughter Megan's return from her summer job in Spain.
The 18-year-old journalism student will get her chance to try out Tippy Talk and communicate with her little sister when she returns to Limerick.
The Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year award provides investment and support services as part of the prize, so he's hoping to build on this to develop the device for a global audience.
"We'll see what happens - we'll give the business the whole hog and see how it goes.
"It will be a great way to help other people, make a few jobs, and earn a few quid. Happy days!"
Health & Living