Mum of two spearheads development of new iPhone App to help children with autism communicate

A Co. Wicklow based mother of two children with autism, Lisa Domican, has today launched a new iPhone application (app) that she hopes will help children with autism better develop 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 has been developed by Lisa in conjunction with software developer Steve Troughton-Smith, and with the support of Telefonica O2 Ireland.

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 very effective 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 O2 advertisement 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; it 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 images and sharing them with the child’s parent / carer / tutor is simple and instant which also encourages consistency in language development for the child. For example, Lisa’s daughter Grace now has over 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 interaction with Grace.

The development of the new app has been supported by O2, which supplied iPhones for the creation and testing of the app, and which also 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 fundraising initiatives, customer fundraising initiatives, employee volunteering and by providing business expertise and support.

Speaking about the launch of the app, Lisa Domican said “I’m absolutely delighted that thanks to Steve, and O2, we have been able to bring this project to fruition.  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.”

Communications Minister Eamon Ryan, speaking during a visit to the Saplings School in Rathfarnham 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.

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