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Device gives 4-year-old ability to communicate

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The computer screen lit up with three pictures — of a ball, a bus and a dinosaur.

Sitting at a special desk facing his computer, 4-year-old Aidan Fox expertly moved the cursor to each item as the game says its name. He breezed through three rounds before growing bored and wanting something different.

While other children his age are just as skilled at computer games, Aidan’s feat is made more impressive by the fact he does so without using his hands.

Because of a rare muscle disease called dystonia, Aidan can’t control his arms and legs. Holding a pencil or pen is impossible.

A new computerized tool called EagleEyes has given him abilities he never had before. He can identify colors, sounds and shapes, draw pictures and eventually even write sentences — all by simply moving his eyes.

“It’s limitless. It’s showing us that the cognitive ability is there,” said Sunshine Fox, Aidan’s mother. “We always assumed it was there, but we didn’t know if we were being biased.”

EagleEyes uses electrical sensors attached above, below and on either side of Aidan’s eyes. Those sensors detect eye movement and connect to a special console, which plugs into the computer.

The computer translates those eye signals to position the cursor on the screen.

With practice, users can do anything from clicking on Web links to “typing” letters on a keyboard, said Deborah Inkley, executive director of the Opportunity Foundation of America, which produces the device.

So far, Aidan has worked his way through cause-and-effect games that have him look and hold his gaze on a certain picture. When he holds it for two or three seconds, music will play, indicating that he won.

Other activities presented a series of photos, asking him to identify images with words. Daily sessions can last for up to 30 minutes before he gets tired and loses focus.

“When we’re using the device, he’s concentrating so hard,” Sunshine Fox said. “He’s thinking about what’s going on, and it wears him out working so hard on it.”

Aidan was diagnosed with dystonia when he was nearly 2. The disease is the broad term for a wide array of genetic conditions that affect movement.

It prevents the body from forming the normal amount of dopamine, a chemical that allows the nervous system to communicate with the muscles.

In some patients, it is limited to a single part of the body, such as the hands or legs. For Aidan, the condition is general, meaning it affects his whole body.

Though Aidan can’t form sentences, he can make sounds such as “mama” and “dada.” His parents can recognize the sounds he makes as his own language and respond to him.

But that won’t help him once he goes to school, Sunshine Fox said.

In an effort to help Aidan to communicate with those around him, the Foxes partnered with the Opportunity Foundation of America to purchase an EagleEyes machine.

A series of fundraisers and community support this spring netted about $3,000, which helped the family cover the cost of the $1,650 device and other expenses.

Aidan is the second child in Indiana to have an EagleEyes. Edinburgh 7-year-old Bria Clawson received one this summer to help with a seizure disorder that she suffers from.

The Foxes received the EagleEyes device in June, and a trainer from Opportunity Foundation of America came to Johnson County for three days to teach the family how to use it.

They worked with the Clawsons to figure out how to connect the machine to the computer, connect the electrodes to the children’s faces and navigate the games.

Aidan is about to attend prekindergarten at Clark-Pleasant schools. The hope is to work with the school to implement the device in the classroom work for him and other special needs students.

“We’d like to get them to buy the actual device, to use with as many kids as need it,” said Darrick Fox, Aidan’s father. “There are so many other kids who can use it.”

Only 219 people throughout the country have an EagleEyes. But the Foxes hope to serve as ambassadors, hosting informational meetings and demonstrations to let other parents know how this device works.

“Our mission as a family is to advertise for them, to let them be known,” Sunshine Fox said. “It’s phenomenal what this can do for kids in this position.”

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