The Grace App for Autism


momanddaughterLisa Domican, mother of two, has merged technology and socialization in efforts to assist families with Autism in learning and communication. The Grace App was “born” on March 11, 2010, and approved by iTunes. Since then, Grace App has been praised by the Tech community and was recently chosen as the Best mobile application in the Irish Web Awards.

In her heartfelt and personal article, Domican describes the beginnings of her children’s Autism diagnoses. While Liam’s diagnosis was unexpected, Lisa says that “she just knew” her daughter Grace had Autism when she was born. The baby girl wouldn’t sleep on her own, and wouldn’t stop feeding; Lisa felt as if she had been “forced into the world too soon.”  Shortly after Gracie’s diagnosis, the family moved to Ireland. While her son and daughter had different beginnings with their diagnosis of Autism and their individual developments, Lisa started Liam on Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) under the instruction of the senior teacher in his State Autism Unit.

PECS is designed to allow the user to approach and practice speech through use of pictures. The user creates sentences out of pictures and presents them to a “communicative partner” as a request. For 4 ½ year old Liam, communication came quickly, and he was able to independently request to use the bathroom- Lisa recalls the excitement of this day.

On the other hand, the process of learning to communicate was much slower for Grace. She was amazingly skilled at creating sentences with the pictures: “I want eigth black triangle toasts” meant she wanted Vegemite Spread on toast cut into eight triangles. But she still couldn’t say “ I want toast.” Grace eventually was able to speak, but it was difficult for people to understand her approximations. For example, she would say “Dink” for drink and “Tote” for toast. Gracie’s efforts were enough to motivate Lisa to continue to try and develop her vocalizations, while using picture commands as a prompt.

Lisa found inspiration for using an iPhone as a learning tool in 2008 when she spotted a colorful, visually oriented iPhone advertisement on the side of a bus in Dublin. In her eyes, it appeared as an electronic version of a Picture Exchange book. In these moments, Lias realized the “iPhone’s potential as a portable alternative to the existing system.” She contacted O2 Telefonica who were supporters of Autism Ireland, Lisa’s advocacy group. They were interested in her idea and agreed to donate a phone to her as part of their Business Diversity Program.

During that summer, Lisa and Gracie worked on the app, uploading pictures on the iPhone and using it to request treats in the supermarket. After frustration in putting the pictures in order- the whole point of the sentence-building system – Lisa reached out to iPhone app developer, Steave Troughton-Smith. When the two finally met, Lisa brought along Gracie’s picture books and drew a big diagram on the back of a shopping bag. From that, Steve created a prototype which he loaded onto Lisa’s phone, which Gracie “adapted to expertly.” graceapp

Lisa was able to use the device’s camera to take photos of things to add to the system. Gracie observed this, and one day she herself took a picture of a toy she wanted! Lisa describes how her daughter could have just showed her the toy on her laptop; But Gracie understood that if it was on the phone, Lisa would know she wanted it.

Lisa informed Steve about this and he incorporated the photo aspect into the app which was then tested with four other children at Gracie’s school. Steve submitted the app to iTunes and it was approved in early 2010. During the first six months, the app underwent 600 downloads.

The Grace App won’t do all the work for you, Lisa details. It’s a way for parents and children to work together, to help the child communicate independently. Lisa says the best reward has been her daughter developing her independent speech and having the ability to interact with her family- not only because she wants something, but because she wants to share something she is excited about. The mother and daughter have become closer with the development of the app, and Lisa says that has made it all worthwhile.

Lisa says that recognition from the Tech community increases their awareness of autism and how they can help improve the world for people with learning disabilities. Lisa Domican’s efforts and passion truly illustrate the impact of harnessing media and technology in efforts to reform and adjust children’s learning needs.

Click here for more information on Grace App

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