Friday 23 June 2017

Finding an App way... to help children with autism

Pioneering new technology is being used to help children with autism make sense of the world and give them a greater sense of independence. As Autism Awareness month begins

Jacob Cotter, aged 7 who has autism, using Avail on his tablet
Jacob Cotter, aged 7 who has autism, using Avail on his tablet

Kathy Donaghy

For some children with autism a simple trip to the supermarket is enough to send them into panic mode. Sensory overload, an unfamiliar setting and a sense of the unknown can trigger a full blown melt-down.

But what if there was a way of showing the child through video or picture images exactly what was going to happen from the minute their parent parks the car at the shops to coming home again with all the groceries?

Many people with autism are visual thinkers - they think in pictures instead of language. Experts explain that thoughts are like videotapes running in their imaginations with pictures their first language and words their second.

From her work as an Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) tutor, Lisa Marie Clinton understood the power of visuals to the children with special needs she worked with. Her 'eureka' moment came when she was working with five year-old Liam McArdle from Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan, when she realised that the laminated cards she was using were not as effective as the visuals on the iPad.

Lisa Marie watched how Liam engaged with the iPad and thought if she could harness technology to create pictures of things, it would create a whole new way of learning for him. The seeds for her digital learning platform, Avail, which stands for Assisted Visuals Achieving Independent Living, were sown.

Tragically, the little boy who inspired Lisa's idea, died in June 2015 when he was just five years-old after being diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer called DIPG. With the support of his parents Eileen and Ronnie, Lisa launched Avail late last year and is now hoping to work with businesses to create disability friendly environments.Essentially Avail works by showing pictures to the person and taking them through the steps to doing something combined with audio instructions on a tablet or mobile device. A voice - in most cases the parent's voice - is talking over the images, providing audio instruction to go with the images on screen.

The e-learning app can take a child through all the steps of getting ready for school but it also can be used to break down tasks within that routine, for example, brushing their teeth. For older children, Lisa says the technology can be used to deliver life skills like making a meal and taking the child through all the steps to creating the finished dish.

According to Lisa Marie, there is no end to scenarios where Avail could be used. "We could create a whole story around a trip to the airport. Because it's difficult to communicate what that's going to be like to a child, if something is visual you are removing that language barrier. If they can picture what's going to happen, it will give them the confidence and reduce their anxiety," she says.

Mum of three, Lorraine Cotter from Carrickmacross, uses Avail for her youngest child Jacob (7), who has autism. Lorraine says Jacob finds social environments very uncomfortable and while he has learned well to cope, a trip to a new place can cause difficulties.

"Jacob can use Avail to calm himself down. If he's feeling angry he goes to his tablet, hits the Avail icon and it will take him through a whole sequence of ways to calm down. The first thing it shows him to do is to take 10 deep breaths. I have a picture of him when he's angry followed by pictures and instructions for what he can do to cool down," says Lorraine.

"Jacob is at an age now where he can get fixated on things - right now he's fixated on a TV programme called The Challenge. I'm now using the app to try to get him off that by focusing on his morning routine. In the mornings he was going straight to the TV and putting it on but now I have his schedule on Avail. It shows his morning routine from Monday to Friday and all the things he does. I take pictures of him coming downstairs and going into the kitchen. I have a picture of the breakfast on the table and of his uniform. When he goes through all the steps he can watch a bit of TV," she says.

"I have used Avail for a trip to the shops and I put all the steps on it. Once he knows the sequence of events, he's OK. "Now we are used to it, we can talk through the sequence of events for going to the shops without the app and we can move on to something else. There will always be something else. There will always be new scenarios that we have to plan ahead for and the app will be great for that."

"A little bit of planning means things will run so much more smoothly for Jacob. I can quickly take a picture and put my voice over it. Jacob will hear the words I say but without the pictures he's not really seeing things. The pictures clarify things for him and it takes the uncertainty out of it. The fact that I can continue using the app, that he's not going to outgrow it, is great. It will just evolve with him," says Lorraine.

But the technology is not just for children with special needs. And Avail's founder Lisa Marie says the sky really is the limit when it comes to how it can be used. "For teenagers who want to go into town - we can take them through all the steps to getting a bus. It can show them what is the appropriate behaviour to use with friends or when meeting someone for the first time. Basically you have a virtual assistant at your fingertips. It's so discreet that a user can just tap into Avail to get assistance," says Lisa Marie.

Earlier this year the Department of Social Protection endorsed Avail to promote independence and productivity for people with disabilities in employment. The department is also giving employers a grant to provide Avail to employees who may need it.

Jim Kerr, who runs Employability Monaghan-Cavan, says they are using the software for clients looking to get back into the workforce. The organisation, which is funded by the Department of Social Protection, placed 131 people with a broad range of disabilities in jobs last year.

While he says not every client will benefit from Avail, there are many who will. "It can be used to remind the client of the list of duties they have. It takes them through that and reminds them of what's to be done next. The person can have their job coach in a video on their tablet saying everything from good morning to asking them if they have finished a task. We are using it with one person at the minute and we are looking at using it with three more people. I'm sure as we go forward we will find more and more ways of using it," says Jim.

For Lisa Marie creating independence for the person with disabilities is at the heart of Avail. "People who might not have got certain opportunities in life now have a way of reaching their full potential and of living as independently as possible," she says.

* Avail is available on Android and Apple stores

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