A few months ago, Chennai lost its license to conduct TEDx events, but the city still rides high on the TED map. On Friday, Ajit Narayanan, a city-based entrepreneur, was one of the three Indians and only one from the State to make a presentation at the annual TED conference in Long Beach, California. Ajit, who talked about emerging systems of human communication, joined an elite list of activists, authors, inventors and entrepreneurs such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who spoke at the event.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), a non-profit owned by the Sapling Foundation, was formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading.” The 31-year-old alumnus of Vidya Mandir and IIT-Madras, has been helping children with autism and cerebral palsy communicate with pictures. “Nobody understands autism completely. Many children find it difficult to get the abstraction between a word and its symbol. But they have a strong ability to visualise,” he said.

Ajit went to the U.S. immediately after his graduation “to make money to come back and do what I had always wanted to – start a company. I was always interested in the disability sector but it was after interacting with my peers and professors that I realised there was almost no technological intervention in helping children with autism speak,” he said. Working with Vidya Sagar, an NGO, helped him get in touch with special educators and understand the needs of children with speaking impairment.

In an attempt to “shot circuit the verbal disability through the visual pathway,” Ajit Narayanan created Avaz, an affordable, tablet-based communication device for the speech impaired. There are images on the screen, of food items, ticks and crosses, to help children communicate. “It is a language of pictures that does not necessarily involve grammar,” he said.

Ajit also focuses on languages. “Do you know the word for turkey in Hindi is peru whereas in Turkish, it is called hindi. Language is fascinating and very powerful,” he said. Ajit, in his TED presentation, talked about ‘free speech’— a meaning-based system that is a faster way for many autistic children to communicate than any spoken language.

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