Autism is a disability that affects the development of the brain in areas of social interaction and communication. At the moment, it is estimated the incidence of autism in Ireland is to be 1-166.
Some children with autism are non verbal which means they need augmentative communication tools to help them communicate needs, desires and even ideas, without speaking. One of the most popular tools is called PECS - Picture Exchange Communication System which allows children with autism to build sentences using a book of laminated pictures attached to a Velcro strip. As a child's vocabulary increases, the PECs book gets bigger and proves more difficult to bring the book out and about in social situations which can lead to a lot of frustration for the child.
Irish Autism Action (IAA) is Telefonica O2 Ireland's charity of choice since 2005. One of the overarching objectives of the O2 & IAA partnership is to use and harness O2's technology to help children with autism communicate better. In 2009, O2 helped a parent of two children with autism along with a software developer to develop a communication iPhone app prototype for children with autism.
The application is designed to be used in a similar way to PECs. The application, which is being developed under the working title Grace, is the brainchild of Lisa Domican, a parent of two children with autism. She was inspired by O2's marketing campaign for the iPhone. Before the launch of the device in 2008, Ms Domican noticed the O2 advertisements and realised the phone's potential as an alternative to the Pecs books used by her 10-year-old daughter, Grace.
Ms Domican linked up with a software developer, who took the description of what she and Grace wanted and turned it into a working version. They developed the application to look exactly like a PECs book. So instead of carrying around a PECs book, Grace uses the iPhone to communicate her needs and desires by choosing from a range of pictures on the app and placing them on a virtual strip of Velcro. Grace has become so comfortable with the technology that she also adds her own photos to the application's library using the iPhone's camera.
The application is currently undergoing trials on five devices, provided by O2, in three schools to see if other children, parents and tutors can use it easily. Once testing has been completed, it will be submitted to the iPhone App Store.
- To iron out any issues that may occur as a result of the trials in a timely fashion, so as to have the application ready for commercial launch in the next number of months.
- Not all children with autism and parents of children of autism may be comfortable using the iPhone technology but it is hoped that the intuitive nature of the device will help overcome this challenge.
The main benefits of this prototype is that is has the potential to improve the communication skills of many children with autism. The main reasons for this are as follows:
It is simple application and works in real time.
- It can be customised to the individual child using their own picture and photo vocabulary
- The iPhone is compact but can hold hundreds of images.
- Adding new images and sharing them with other carers / tutors is simple and instant - which encourages consistency in language development for the child.
- The iPhone app is discreet - the PECs book stands out.