Grace App for autism free on World Autism Awareness Day, 2 April 2011

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Screenshot of Grace App; supplied by Lisa Domican

We’ve recently ordered an iPad2 for Karan, having heard a lot about how apps are being used to encourage people with autism to communicate. My brother is non-verbal, which means he does not talk to communicate with us. He has a few signs, but a lot of times we guess what he wants, based on cues or routines.

I’ve heard about a lot of apps on the iPad/iPhone for people with autism and this is one of them – and it’s going to be available for free on April 2 2011, which is World Autism Awareness Day.

Lisa Domican is a mother of two children with autism. Her daughter Gracie is severely autistic girl who doesn’t speak a lot but uses pictures to communicate. Lisa explains the concept of using pictures well: “Many kids with autism or speech delay use pictures attached to a board to ask for what they need or say how they feel. These boards are stored in a book which they have to carry around with them. Even if and when they begin to say a few words, they may be difficult to understand and so they rely on a growing picture vocabulary which can become very unwieldy.”

She says, “I wanted to keep supporting her speech development by prompting her to use her own voice – with the support of her pictures anywhere.”

She developed Grace App for this purpose and explains how it works: 

Grace App replicates the picture exchange system by storing a basic picture vocabulary of Foods, Things I like, Places, Colors, Sizes and Shapes on an iPhone with a function for creating a sentence. It can also be used on iPod Touch and iPad. On the smaller devices you tilt and the cards are enlarged for you to point and read together. iPad works on Landscape or Portrait view with the pictures big enough to be read easily without enlargement. There is also a facility for finding, taking and sharing photographs of all the other things that you may need or want. You can sort the pictures into categories, delete those you don’t need and teach the child or user to add their own independently – giving them power over their communication choices.

The app was created with the support of O2 Telefonica and developed by Steven Troughton-Smith. Grace App was awarded a United Nations, UNGAID sponsored World Summit Award for m- Learning and Education in 2010.

So those interested in trying out the app can consider getting it on April 2 2011 when it will be available on the iTunes store for free. Once you have the app (whether you’ve downloaded it for free or bought it) you will be able to get whatever updates the app undergoes in the future. A major update will also be launched soon.

Lisa says, “My goal is to engage and inform as many educators, therapists, parents, carers and service providers about Grace App and hopefully as a result, get the gift of independent expression to as many people with Autism and other disabilities as possible. Everyone should have the right to say what they want. My aim is for them to get it!”

I think it would be interesting to see how users can customize the pictures to get the person with autism to communicate with a familiar photo. I know that when I try this app out I’d love to add our own pictures, just so that Karan has a sense of familiarity and it hopefully won’t be too hard for him to understand how to use the app. Last night, while we were getting ready to sleep, he pulled me downstairs and signed for food, then tried to open the fridge, then signed for toilet and ran back upstairs. It’s times like these I’d like to know what he really wanted. So fingers crossed, that apps like this one will clear up communication channels between us.

For more information, check www.graceapp.com

Disclaimer: I was contacted by Lisa regarding the app; I endorse her efforts to help people with autism. I have not tried the app myself, but will be doing so once I get the iPad2 I’ve ordered.

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Remember #autism even after #DubaiTwestival

At Dubai Twestival, I was given the wonderful opportunity to speak for a few minutes about autism, given my personal interest in it. I remember having a vague idea – a bullet point list if you will – of things I wanted to cover in the 2-4 minutes I was allotted. Problem was, once I started talking…well, autism is something I can talk about for ages, so I went along my own meandering path, going wherever my synapses were telling me to go.

So…now that I can put pen to paper (or fingers-to-keyboard-to-screen) and try not to get distracted emotionally (as I did in the middle of what I was saying at Twestival…remembering how society in general has treated us sometimes was painful), here’s what I want to say to everyone reading… 

As I mentioned while talking, the awareness among people in Dubai about special needs and autism is appalling. It really is. Granted, there is so much more awareness over the last few years…but remember, I’ve been around in Dubai for dog’s years. I was here when Karan was diagnosed, I was here in the late 1990s when there was no help for us, I was here in the 2000s when we’ve faced problems over getting him into a good school. The general public just doesn’t know what it is. Either they’ve never heard of autism, or they have some fandangled opinions about it. The textbook definition will tell you that autism is a lifelong developmental disability where the person has impaired communication skills and social interaction, and can indulge in repetitive behaviour or be obsessed with something. It’s true enough. However, there are so many other issues…readers of this blog will know we’ve dealt with non-verbal issues (Karan does not speak to communicate with us), clothing issues, food issues, self-help issues and so much more.

One VERY important thing: if you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism. Each person with autism comes with their own set of unique challenges. The standard definition is like an umbrella, if you will. While that definition holds true, you’ll find n-number of differences with each autistic person who overcome completely different obstacles.

Now I’d like to appeal to organizations and businesses within the community. With the current rates of autism (1 in 110 globally, think it’s 1 in 100 in UK, lower in other places), within the next 5-10 years, we, the society, will have on our hands a massive number of adults with autism. It’s an employment resource just waiting to be tapped (and here I acknowledge that sadly, there are some adults whose autism is severe enough that they cannot work throughout their lives). Like in the neuro-typical (NT) world (or all you so-called “normal” people out there), it works the same here: if you’re good at something, that’s where you would like to get some work. Just because a person has special needs doesn’t mean they cannot be a productive member of society. It is so important for people with special needs – not monetarily, mind you – to have a sense of self-respect and self-worth (and goodness knows a major chunk of society gives them no respect whatsoever). Employment is a way of enhancing self-esteem and self-worth, and gives dignity and acceptance to anyone. I know of a couple of organizations in the UAE that do take on interns with special needs and give them jobs, as part of a social responsibility program. My brother’s school is heavily involved in placing their older students with organizations such as banks and hotels. Students are also encouraged to focus on an activity that they are good at and can hold them in good stead when it comes to future employment. Yes, it’s a little bit of extra work, and extra training… but trust me, organizations will find that once the person knows what he/she has to do, they will not stop at anything to get it done for you. Think about it.

So please… don’t forget about autism. It’s here to stay… it’s the so-called NTs that need to adjust.

Donate books to help raise funds for special needs school

Hello,

I’m blogging to appeal for book donations. Manzil, a centre for special needs children, which is based in Sharjah, is planning to host a book sale sometime in June (I don’t have exact dates yet) to raise funds for their school.

My brother has been going to their school for quite some time now, and has made tremendous leaps and strides towards being able to care for himself. Their school isn’t as large as some of the more commonly known special needs institutions out there in the UAE, which is why they’re probably more in need of funds and support. They do great work and have a lovely, qualified staff who take pride in what they do.

If anyone has any books they’d like to donate, it’s terribly easy. Autism & Us has partnered up with TwitBookClub to host this tweetup: Books for … Manzil. We’re collecting books to donate to Manzil to feature in their booksale. #ManzilBooks makes it easier for the Twitter community to gather and donate their books for a good cause. And when the booksale is being hosted in June, they’re expecting to have 10,000 books to sell, so I’ll put up another twtvite closer to time. Books and charity…it all goes rather well together!

So anyone cleaning out their bookcases, get over to the twtvite page and RSVP immediately!

Thank you.