How tech could help kids on the autism spectrum to communicate

Kicking off a career in programming involves learning to code. But the focus during Enspiral Dev Academy’s bootcamp goes beyond that — we want to train programmers who love solving problems and making the world a better place. Learning technology skills can help you transform ideas into reality and re-think the power of the internet, by actually being able to build it. Here’s a great example of a graduate project created at EDA in which students have used a real-world problem to do just that.

Lucy Moore and Suresh Swamy have both seen first-hand how hard it can be for kids on the autism spectrum to be heard; Lucy’s worked as a teacher aide, while Suresh’s niece is autistic. Along with Enspiral Dev Academy teammates Melissa Chan and Toby Johnston they’ve created the Comms Companion — a new app that helps a person on the autism spectrum to communicate. Primarily this app is aimed at young children, to help them learn to communicate with their parent or caregiver.

Comms Companion, which would ideally be used on an iPad, has a few main features:

  • The schedule, set by a parent using the “admin” function, allows a child to see the expected layout of the day.
  • Children can express their needs by selecting pictures.
  • They can also tell their parents what sensory experiences they’re having.
  • Finally, the timer allows a parent to show a child how long they’ll need to wait for something. This is useful for non-verbal children who also don’t have strong comprehension of time, or of what “wait just a minute” means in real terms.

Sounds brilliant but simple — so much so that you’d imagine an app like this would already exist. Lucy says that while there are digital communication systems for children with autism, they’re pretty pricey — often starting at around $200 NZD. And while analogue communication systems are well-advanced, using a whole bunch of different booklets to flick through and attach to a board can be cumbersome, and they’re naturally finite in scope (unless you make more booklets). The team says that the beauty of the Comms Companion is that they can add to it all the time, and it’s all packaged in a sleek app.

Furthermore, there’s potential in future for the app to be tailored to each individual.

Suresh says the project was a great culmination of the skills the students had learned at Enspiral Dev Academy. In 18 weeks, cohorts learn the basics to start them off on a whole new career, including a range of front and back end coding skills. The Comms Companion app was created using React, SVG for the graphics (like the timer), and a lot of CSS, with Express for the back-end and SQLite and PostgreSQL for database. It’s a pretty impressive suite for students who’ve been coding for less than five months, and for Lucy, it was a great outlet and motivator for something she was already passionate about.

The team was able to use a resource that provides images on CD expressly for this purpose.

Seeing the reaction of a parent to using the app was an exciting prospect, says Lucy.

“I really liked the idea of children discovering the pleasure of communication — not just to ask for something but to communicate on a more conversational level for fun. We wanted to give them the fun of commenting on their surroundings such as, ‘I can see a bird, Mum!’ Just because they can — using the buttons that depict the different senses.”

For Suresh, the chance to test the app first-hand came when his niece had a go; he says she could easily use it and was immediately familiar with the pictures.

“Every child is really different so it won’t work for every child, but every kid these days loves their electronics,” he says.

Part of the importance of creating this app as the team’s final project at EDA was a desire to give back to the community. “If you look back, lots of people have spent a lot of time making stuff, and making it available for free — so we learned coding based on those things,” says Suresh.

For Lucy, who’d worked as a teacher aide and in I.T., and Suresh, a former research scientist in physics at Callaghan Innovation, this has been a taste of the kind of project they’d love to do more of post-graduation.

They’ve got loads of good ideas for what could come next for Comms Companion (including sound functionality), so watch this space — they may be asking for beta testers in future!