Lisa Domican has two children who have been diagnosed with autism, Liam who is now thirteen and Grace who will be twelve in September. Liam went to a special school for autism and was taught to use pictures as a means by which a bridge to learning to communicate verbally was enabled.
The pictures were 3cm by 3cm and were printed onto a piece of cardboard. The idea is that the child points at a picture of a cookie and the child gets the cookie. Then the picture is related to the sound ‘cookie’ and so on in a circle of reinforcement. As a result of using that system Liam learned to talk within three months.
However, by the the time Grace attended that school there was no longer any speech therapy available for her. Because the speech therapist’s availability had been reduced by lack of funding, it was decided that because Gracie couldn’t talk the therapist’s time and attention would be better directed towards the children who could already talk a little.
So Lisa was forced to fall back on her own resources, “[Gracie] also has a lot of frustration behaviour associated with her disability; tamtrums, anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness and so on. Being able to find out what she wanted was very important because it meant that she didn’t have a tantrum.
“It was up to me to teach a communications system to my daughter [so] I did a two-day course on the picture exchange communication system.
“We did that for six years. Eventually she could, through persistence and practice, say a few words and form some basic sentences. It was really important to keep practicing to enable her to use her voice.”
At this point Lisa and Grace had more than 400 pictures in a series of folders containing laminated sheets. A very bulky and unwieldy system that was not portable, “ When we went out I used a filofax sized book but it meant leaving pictures behind.”
Then just over three years ago Lisa saw an ad on the side of a bus for the iPhone. The icons looked very much like the little pictures in Grace’s book to her.
A little later, at an autism event, Lisa went up to an O2 corporate and social responsibility person and persuaded them to let her have an iPhone.
“So in the summer of 2008 I transferred all the pictures in Gracie’s books onto the iPhone.”
Later on while waiting to pick up Liam up from school Lisa took Grace to the supermarket to get a snack, “When she reached for a croissant, which was her normal behaviour, I put the iPhone in front of her and used her hand to press the home button, slide the screen, open the album, find the picture of the croissant and then say the word.
“The second time we did that she did it herself.
“We did that for five months but we couldn’t do semantic sentences because I didn’t know how to put pictures in a row.”
Then Lisa wrote to Steve Troughton-Smith whose blog she had been reading regularly and told him the whole story. He liked the idea and they met for coffee. Lisa showed him the books of pictures and drew out on a large sheet of paper how she wanted the app to work and that afternoon he created the prototype.
There was then a much longer process of creating original artwork and testing it out with Grace to make sure she could recognise it.
The app was named Grace App and has been in the itunes app store since March 2010. In the first year they have had about 700 downloads.
Lisa has found the responses to Grace App to be very helpful, “Through feedback and people emailing me stuff, we put together a much better idea of how we wanted it to look on our next version.”
There is now a manual that goes with Grace App which not only shows you how to use the app but also introduces the communication system to a non-verbal person.
“We are now looking at our own site just for Grace App and within that we want to get some apps up and running that focus on specific subject areas such as communicating discomfort. ‘I have a sore tooth, I have a sore leg,’ and so on.
“We want to get some sponsorship for those so we can offer them for free. Not every child with autism is non-verbal but a lot of them have a lot of frustration and it would be easier for them to use pictures rather than producing behaviour.
“That is what it is all about. It is about replacing what people see as negative behaviour because they don’t understand that it is caused by frustration with not being able to communicate.
“If you bite someone, what you are really saying is, ‘Get out of my space.’ Biting works really well to do that. What we say is that, ‘We are not going to do biting anymore. We’re going to say, I don’t want to be here.’”
Grace App at the moment is largely parent driven but Lisa wants to get to the point where it can become her primary source of income so she can afford to, “travel and start doing trade shows…and that means I could get to the decision makers, speech therapists, patient therapists and educate them better.”
For more information go to Lisa’s blog Grace App for Autism