Eyes on the prize: How this teen’s app can help people with autism

26 Oct 2018383 Views

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Ciara-Beth Ní Ghríofa speaking at ESB’s Generation Tomorrow launch. Image: @ESBGroup/Twitter

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Ciara-Beth Ní Ghríofa is developing an app to help people with autism become more comfortable with making eye contact. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

When Ciara-Beth Ní Ghríofa from Galway was 14, she was diagnosed with autism. What happened next set her on a path of exploration that is set to help people with the condition around the world.

“When I got my diagnosis, I decided pretty much instantly I was going to dive into a whole realm of research and learn about how my brain works,” recalled Ní Ghríofa, who is now 19.

The topic of making eye contact, which can be an issue for some people with autism, leapt out at her from that research. “I came across an alarming statistic that 68pc of employers would say that not making eye contact in an interview could cost you a job,” she said. “And then if you look at the statistics, 16pc of people with autism are in full-time employment.”

This is a huge gap, according to Ní Ghríofa, and she decided to produce an app called Mi Contact to help people become more used to looking at eyes. “It’s a matching game; you have a picture of a face and there are shapes displayed in the person’s eyes,” she explained. “Then the game is that you have to look at the eyes and select the correct shapes from buttons at the bottom of the screen.”

‘I would encourage teachers and principals to be open to the idea that students may need to take a week here and there to do something incredible’
– CIARA-BETH NÍ GHRÍOFA

Learning by doing

When she came up with the idea, Ní Ghríofa had no experience of coding, so a friend kindly offered to help her build it. Once the basic code was in place, she taught herself how to alter it to expand the game, such as adding more pictures of faces.

Ní Ghríofa ran a small pilot study with 10 people (five of whom were on the autistic spectrum and five of whom were not) to see if it was effective. “The results were promising, but the study wasn’t big enough or long enough, so there is another, longer study in the pipeline,” she said.

The app and initial study won Ní Ghríofa the Abbott ‘Life to the Fullest’ Award at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in 2017 and she went on to take part in – and win – the BT Young Scientist Business Bootcamp that year. “I was the team lead for the winning team, and Mi Contact was the project,” she said. “It was a fabulous opportunity and brilliant from a business perspective because we got to learn skills like how to pitch a project.”

Busy schedule

With the Mi Contact app scheduled for launch early next year, Ní Ghríofa has been busy since that success, presenting at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre Empathy Conference in NUI Galway, being a representative at the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, taking part in the Three Dot Dash incubator programme in New York for social enterprises and travelling with the Irish Girl Guides.

Next week, Ní Ghríofa will play an integral part in the ESB Creative Tech Fest. Having hosted last year’s event, this year she will be keeping things running smoothly backstage, ensuring that speakers and artists are all set up and ready to wow the audience.  “I will get to see what goes on behind the scenes,” she said.

“And we will have lots going on – a juggling scientist, projects, a band called Tógra from Kerry – it’s going be a marvellous day.”

Youthful support

Oh, and somewhere in there, Ní Ghríofa has also managed to find time to do her Leaving Cert and she is now a Quercus scholar at University College Cork (UCC), studying psychology and computer science.

“For a long time, I had been dead set on studying musical theatre and drama at university, but entering the BTYSTE sparked my interest in being able to help as many people as possible with technology,” she said. “This course in UCC is allowing me to merge my interest in psychology with being able to help people with creative technology.”

So, as one of the growing number of young people in Ireland using technology to realise a dream of helping people, what is Ní Ghríofa’s advice for her peers who have an idea that could benefit others?

“My advice is not to take no for an answer,” she said. “While we are improving a lot at listening to youth in Ireland, people are still reluctant to invest and there are a lot of 19, 20, 21-year-olds who have to go overseas to grow their businesses. So, my advice is that there is a way around every ‘no’ if you persist.”

She also encourages schools to keep an open mind when students are pursuing a dream that can mean missing class sometimes. “I was very lucky in that my school was very understanding,” she said. “And I would encourage teachers and principals to be open to the idea that students may need to take a week here and there to do something incredible.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication

editorial@siliconrepublic.com