An NYC computer scientist was inspired to create AutisMate, an award-winning app that helps people with autism communicate, by his younger brother who has autism. Discover how this research-supported tool may be life-changing for your child, too.
Jonathon Izak with his younger brother, Oriel, who inspired him to create AutisMate, which Oriel now uses regularly on his iPad
Jonathan Izak's younger brother, Oriel, now 12, was diagnosed with autism at age 3. For years, Izak and his family watched Oriel struggle in a number of areas. Early on, he was unable to perform simple tasks or master critical skills, and he would become easily frustrated at his inability to express himself. “He didn’t have much independence at all,” Izak recalls.
To help him communicate, Oriel wore a dedicated Augmentative and Alternative Communication device around his neck. These AAC devices are typically very heavy and very expensive, costing between $2,000 and $10,000. They’re also challenging to use—ACC devices incorporate grids of symbols and require the user to piece them together, a fairly complicated task with which Oriel, and many others with autism, are not particularly successful.
After watching Oriel struggle with a pricey and ineffective device, the family knew there had to be something better. Three years ago, Izak, determined to put his computer science degree to good use, teamed up with a fellow University of Pennsylvania alum and a number of AAC researchers, behavior therapists, speech pathologists, and clinicians to build the first version of a new, groundbreaking AAC app, AutisMate, for which Izak quickly realized there was a high demand.
The app allows users to communicate visually, helping them to connect with the world around them through scenes or photos that can be made interactive with voice recordings, videos, and picture schedules. This uncomplicated way of communicating reduces the user’s frustration and can result in improved behavior.
A wide range of pre-created content, such as a video that shows the sequence of steps on a visit to the doctor’s office, is also included with the app. Often, those with autism have trouble transitioning to new environments or new tasks, and allowing them to visualize what will happen beforehand can reduce anxiety and frustration. AutisMate also incorporates symbols into the scenes to help users go from only communicating through pictures to building sentences with symbols and understanding categories.
Research suggests that those with autism actually learn skills faster using video models than through live demonstration. Although researchers do not know why this is the case, Izak suggests that “the video is engaging and individuals pay more attention to it, but also that it really simplifies everything and there is no human component involved. You can really break things down and highlight exactly what you’re trying to display, whereas a live person modeling it could be slightly different every time, there are more distractions going on, and [live deonstration] doesn’t really focus their attention on what you’re trying to show them.”
Perhaps the biggest concern for users of AutisMate is that communication through an electronic device could become a crutch and inhibit language development for autistic children. But “the research out there—and there’s quite a bit of it—shows that these AAC devices really advance language,” Izak says. “I’ve seen it with my brother as well.” He stresses that users communicate with the devices while building their own communication skills, and that they learn the meanings of particular symbols rather than solely relying on the devices.
Izak’s revolutionary app has caught the attention of distinguished members in the special needs field, and his advisory team currently includes Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D., director of education, Upper School, for the McCarton School in Manhattan and the founding chair of the Scientific Council for the Organization for Autism Research.
To learn more about AutisMate and how it can help kids with autism, visit autismate.com.