Mum of two creates iPhone App for autistic children

A Wicklow-based mother of two children with autism, Lisa Domican, has developed a new iPhone app that she hopes will help children with autism better build their communications skills.

The app, which has already been successfully trialled in the Saplings School in Rathfarnham for children with autism, is called “Grace” (named after Lisa’s daughter) and is based on the principle of picture exchange communication.

It was developed by Lisa in conjunction with software developer Steve Troughton-Smith, and with the support of Telefonica O2 Ireland.

“As the mother of two children with autism, I know it works, I’ve seen the positive impact it has had on my own children, and therefore I can confidently recommend it to other parents and tutors of children with autism,” Domican said.

How the ‘Grace’ app works

The new app is designed to be used in a similar way to how the existing Picture Exchange Communication System is used by parents and tutors of children with autism – allowing them to build sentences using a book of laminated pictures attached to a board by Velcro.

As the child learns new words through pictures, they are added to the book, reflecting the child’s growing vocabulary. However, while the existing system is efficient in the home or classroom, it is not very portable for everyday situations outside of these settings.

The inspiration for Lisa’s app came to her when she spotted an ad for the iPhone on the side of a bus in Dublin. To Lisa, the main screen of the device in the ad, which featured a range of colourful app photos, looked like an electronic version of a picture exchange book. At that point, Lisa realised the phone’s potential as a portable alternative to the existing system and set to work in developing the new app with Steve.

The main benefits of the new app are that it is simple and works in real time. The app can be customised to the individual child using their picture and photo vocabulary; the iPhone is compact but can hold hundreds of images; and adding new photos and sharing them with the child’s parent/carer/tutor is instant and straightforward, which also encourages consistency in language development for the child.

Grace now has more than 300 symbols and photos stored on her iPhone to reflect her current vocabulary, to which she can instantly add new photos at any time as her vocabulary grows.

Lisa can also share new words and interests instantly with Grace’s carers and tutors in school, using the phone to ensure they are aware and can use the new words in their interactions with Grace.

Support for the ‘Grace’ app

O2 supplied the iPhones for the creation and testing of the app and funded the development of the final artwork used in the app. O2’s charity of choice for the past four years has been Irish Autism Action, of which Lisa is a member. In addition to providing funding, O2 supports IAA through a number of ways, including employee fund-raising initiatives, customer fund-raising initiatives, employee volunteering and by providing business expertise and support.

Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD, speaking during a visit to the Saplings School said: “The potential of new technology is limitless, constrained only by our imaginations. I congratulate Lisa and wish her well in her continuing work.”

The new app is now available in the official iPhone App Store. It will retail at €29.99 for up to five users, to facilitate family members accessing the app.

Photo: The iPhone 3GS

See Also: Autism Awareness in Public & Private Schools

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