When Jonathan Izak set out to create an app that would help kids with autism communicate better, he had, perhaps, the best test subject in the world: his 10-year-old brother, Oriel, rendered mute by autism. Oriel had already been using communication devices, but Izak noticed that they were bulky to tote around, and some cost upwards of $10,000. There had to be a better way.
Two years ago, Izak, newly graduated from Penn with a computer science degree, got to work. An iPad, he figured, would be much easier for a kid like Oriel to transport. And besides, toting around a sleek iPad instead of a clunky communication box “would make a kid like Oriel seem cool rather than isolate him,” Izak says. Although communication-assistance apps already existed, they were too complicated for a kid with Oriel’s difficulties to use. The technology was there, but it had to be repackaged in a way that made sense.
With the help and input of over 300 doctors, therapists, parents and teachers, and after consulting piles of research on special-needs education, Izak and his partner Ankit Agarwal developed AutisMate, an iPad app that helps kids with autism work on communication, behavior and social skills though virtual therapy and assistance that’s personalized to a kid’s own environment. Because people with autism often feel more comfortable in settings that are familiar to them, the idea here is to use a person’s own home, school, neighborhood, etc., as the teaching tools themselves.
Here’s how it works: Parents or therapists (or both) create various “scenes” and environments within the app using pictures of, for example, the kid’s own bedroom or the kitchen in his house. The images are overlaid with clickable buttons that offer a choice of commands. So, if there’s a button on the refrigerator, a kid could click it and see a menu of items in the refrigerator. When he clicks on an apple, the app will speak, “I want an apple.” The idea is to use visual cues from the child’s own environment to teach basic communication and comprehension skills, building up to more complex, spontaneous expression as the kid gets the hang of it.
Parents can also make how-to task lists, of sorts, so kids can learn processes. For example, you might set up a list of steps for what a child needs to do when he wakes up in the morning: take a shower, brush teeth and hair, get dressed, make the bed. For each of these steps, you can choose from a pre-loaded library of videos that demonstrate how to brush your teeth or hair, how to make your bed, and more.
“It allows children to become more independent by carrying out tasks on their own,” says Izak. “There’s a lot of research behind these tools, including the visual scenes and schedules. What the iPad does is it makes them much more interactive and accessible.”
Izak says his brother, Oriel, figured out how to use the app almost immediately: “He was already a bit familiar with the iPad so I showed him once how to request something in the kitchen and he picked it up.” Oriel and other testers have been using the app’s beta version for about a year, giving Izak and Agarwal time to fine tune it. The feedback from parents, teachers and therapists, he says, has been positive. “Word-of-mouth buzz has gotten it into a lot of hands,” he says. “It really speeds up the initial time it takes to get kids speaking.”
Last week, the first release version of the app hit the iTunes store, joining a growing market of apps geared toward people with autism. It costs $149.99, which seems steep at first blush but is comparable to other autism-therapy apps, which range from $150 to $300.
Check out a demo of AutisMate here.