When Jonathan Izak graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, he decided to put his new degree in Computer Science to very good use. In an effort to help his 10-year old autistic brother Oriel communicate and learn new tasks, he developed a new iPad app called Autismate to try and simplify the process.
I got the chance to speak briefly with Izak, and he told me that Autismate came about because existing hardware solutions available on the market weren’t getting the job done.
“They’re big, bulky, and expensive,” he said. “Some of them can be between $9,000 and $12,000, and provide only limited functionality.” So what makes Izak’s solution any better?
The big thing, he tells me, is that it strives to dial down the navigation process into something more manageable. His little brother Oriel, like many people with autism, can have difficulty when it comes to making generalizations and lumping things into categories. That can be problematic by itself, but other apps and devices meant to facilitate communication do exactly that — they lump concepts into categories like emotions, actions, desires, objects and expect the user to sift through them all.
Autismate takes a slightly different approach. Instead of laying out a grid of categories that when pressed yield sentences and sentiments, Autismate lets teachers and caretakers define their own spaces — think My Room, or the Kitchen — and then layer actions on top of the image in the form of brightly colored icons.
Tapping on an icon in the Bathroom space could pop up a video demonstrating how to brush one’s teeth for instance, while an icon in the Kitchen space may bring up images of foods the user may want to eat. The app includes 12,000 usable images and voice recordings right out of the gate, and all it takes to add more is a few seconds of fiddling within the app. People can even record multiple variations of the same sentiment so the user can get a feel for generalizing similar statements.
Those spaces are also tied to physical locations thanks to some thoughtful use of the iPad’s GPS, so the My School space will only appear when the device itself is within range.
Beyond easing communication, Izak’s plan with Autismate was to help people like his brother get comfortable with performing everyday tasks. As he sees it, the more comfortable they are, the more responsive they tend to be with others, even if it only manifests in small actions like eye contact.
Priced at $49 in the App Store, Autismate may seem a bit steep compared to some of the other options available, but it certainly seems to be proving itself in the field. While Oriel seems to be getting plenty of mileage out of Autismate, Izak has already managed to get the app into use at a handful of autism-oriented schools in New York.