Winston-Salem, NC -- As Victor Pauca sits on a swing playing with his older sisters, the smile on his face is enough to tell you he's having a blast.
That smile is an important, because Victor can't communicate like most other five year olds. His parents found out he has Pitt Hopkins Syndrome when he was two years old.
"It felt like a dark cloud settled over our family," his mom, Theresa, said. "It was very hard at the beginning."
Pitt Hopkins Syndrome is a rare disorder that delays a child's development. Many kids with it struggle to ever walk or talk.
"You really feel like the world has gotten dark and happiness has been sucked out of you," Paul, his father, said.
But that happiness is there for Victor and his family now. And that's thanks, in part, to the fact that Victor found a voice.
Paul Pauca is an associate professor of computer science at Wake Forest University. When the equipment that Victor had been using to communicate broke, Paul and some students in his software engineering class got to work. They set out to create a way to give voice to children who have what they call "emerging communication skills."
The result? An application called Verbal Victor.
Through a series of "buttons" made up of familiar voices and sounds, Victor can tell you what he wants to do by touching a picture on an iPod Touch, an iPhone or an iPad. The buttons can be customized with new voices and images.
"If he's able to tell you what he wants -- and it can be as simple as a choice of foods -- it really opens up a world for him and for us," Paul said.
At just $6.99 in Apple's iTunes store, the app is selling around the world -- even as far away as South Korea.
Other devices for children with emerging communication skills can cost thousands of dollars. This one just needs a relatively inexpensive Apple product.
"This, to me, is revolutionary in the sense that you can afford it," Paul said. "And if we continue to develop systems that are small and cheap, then we can really bring it to the masses and be able to help more people."
More than 110 people have downloaded Verbal Victor already, and Paul and Theresa hope that means other parents are having the same experience.
"He can tell us things through Verbal Victor that he wants to do," Theresa said. "And we can give him choices. And he can have some control over his environment, which is a wonderful feeling."
Paul is teaching another software engineering class this spring. Those students could work to see if the app can be modified to help children with autism or adults with Parkinson's Disease with their communication. A version for Android-based devices is also coming soon.
WFMY News 2