New mobile app to give people with autism a voice

28 Jul 2011

Lisa Domican has created an app that aims to revolutionise how people with autism communicate with others based on the principle of picture exchange communication.

Domican says the inspiration for the app came to her as her daughter Grace, who has autism, needed to use picture cards known as PECs (picture exchange communication) to communicate with people but they would often get damaged or lost.

“When I saw an advertisement for the iPhone one day I noticed the pictures of apps, which immediately reminded me of Grace’s picture book. I figured this might make the process of communication for people with autism a lot more discreet and less frustrating.”

Appropriately called ‘Grace’, the app recently featured at the Autism Show in London and is available to download on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

It works by helping non-verbal children and adults communicate to other people through text and pictures.

Domican claims a “lack of help available” as regards to speech therapy for those with autism from the Department of Education in Ireland and the health services made her even more determined to create the app.

“When Grace was three years old, she attended a state special pre-school with one teacher for six children with severe autism. The HSE Autism Services provided less than an hour a week of speech therapy to the entire class, so the teacher and therapist, although willing, only had time to work with the children whose speech was developing. Grace couldn’t talk, so she did not get speech therapy.

“It was up to me to teach her to communicate so I did the parents course and set up the picture exchange system myself. It was hard work but I stuck with it. They told me that she would never talk, but Gracie can now speak in three-word sentences using the app and her independence grows each day – we proved them wrong.”

Grace app for people with autism as viewed on Apple iPad

View of the Grace app on the Apple iPad

App developer Steven Troughton-Smith involved

Domican sought the expertise of the successful Irish app developer Steven Troughton-Smith, who set about developing the Grace app.

The app was also developed with the help of Telefónica O2 Ireland and Irish Autism Action and has been hailed as “long overdue”, because before this Domican refers to how people with autism had to rely on printed pictures to construct sentences.

“The app is simple to use, but it also addresses a niche in visual communications that encourages the user’s own voice. Its simplicity and usability is down to the fact that it was created by somebody who uses and needs it,” explains Domican, who has also set up her own blog to offer advice on using the app and on autism in general.

She says she is now being inundated with calls to produce the app in other languages, including French, Danish, Dutch and Arabic.

Collaborative arts

Create Ireland is an incubation and mentoring programme for business development within the digital media sector.

“Grace app is a global product with immediate impact for both parents and autistic children. Lisa has been selected to participate in the Create Business Accelerator programme to fast track the internationalisation of her business via relevant distribution channels,” said Frederic Herrera of Create Ireland.

Tracy Sherwood, a mother of Charlie, aged five, who is autistic, says the Grace app has given her family hope: “It gave dignity and independence to my daughter. Grace is not just a virtue; it is a life-changing app.”

Photo: Lisa Domican with her daughter, Grace, whose quality of life has been improved since the creation of Grace app

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic