Autism disorder is known to be characterized by a “triad of impairments” :
- The primary one is the social impairment : an autistic person has difficulties in relating to other people.
- A second one is the communication impairment : both verbal and non-verbal communication channels are hard to be understood and used by people with autism.
- Finally, there exists rigidness in thinking, language and behaviour. It is agreed that the common traits of autism are abnormal reaction to input stimuli, lack of human engagement and inability to generalize between environments.
Autism is seen as a mental disability rather than a psychiatric illness and as such it requires a particular education process than can assist autistic persons in learning basic social, communication and reasoning skills. Education can be used as a tool to help autistic persons to cope with the “theory of mind deficit – difficulty in understanding mental states of others and ascribing them to themselves or others”. Successful autism “treatments” using educational interventions have been reported even a decade ago.
The proposed platform intends to enhance or mediate the teacher-child educational process. It is based on various interaction procedures according to the disability level of the autistic person in question. Several modules comprise the platform. Each of them represents a specific learning domain. Namely, there are modules where the child is asked to identify the correct image between two or more images, to put images in the correct sequence (according to time), identify emotions by visual expressions etc.
Furthermore, the more complex modules are in the form of semi-virtual environments. They provide the child with the ability to interact in a safe and controlled way. The theme of each module varies from objects in the normal surroundings, everyday use objects, colours, words etc. The instructions are given either by an affective avatar, synthesized speech in autistic person’s native language (in the specific example – Greek), written in the screen, by the corresponding makaton symbol or a combination of these.
Additionally, the avatar can express emotions depending on the situations, e.g. happiness when the correct image is selected, sadness if not. The instructions and the difficulty level can be personalised for each user. User input/feedback is facilitated by means of a mouse interaction, a touch screen or large buttons attached to the computer.
Equally important function of the platform is the recording of the interaction/education process in a database. Consequently, the educators are enabled with track record of the users’ progress and modify the difficulty levels accordingly. Additionally, an educator may register specific educational or personality data for each autistic person. The printable format of all the records enables easy monitoring and analysis of the learning process. In this way, a longitudinal record may be achieved indicating a ” learning curve” for each autistic person separately, thereby enhancing and normalizing the educational procedures toward each person’s needs.