Autism Awareness Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day (2nd April), and throughout this week and month, there are a number of events and promotions happening to highlight this.  The theme this year is focusing on Assistive Technology and we’ve rounded up some related items below with promotions and discounts that are running to celebrate this week, and hope some prove useful!

Lidl have a range of products on offer this week including sensory toys and gadgets. Two of the most popular items are bound to be noise cancelling ear defenders and a LED nightlight projector, to aid with sensory processing and reducing stressors. In conjunction with their Autism Friendly Quiet Evening, Lidl are leading the way in providing an inclusive environment.  More information can be found at www.lidl.ie/en/special-offers.htm?id=767 .

Assistiveware, a company that specialise in apps for iOS devices are running a 50% off promotion until the 5th April 2019 on all their AAC apps, including the ever popular Proloquo2Go and Pictello. Check out www.assistiveware.com/blog/autism-acceptance-month-discount for more.

Avaz are doing a similar promotion, 50% off the popular Avaz AAC app that is available in a variety of languages, and for iOS as well as Android. Available until the 7th April, click on the link for more: www.avazapp.com/autism-acceptance-month-2019 .

LAMP: Words for Life, from Liberator, is also available at a 50% discount until the 6th April. Using a motor planning approach and utilising the extensive research into semantic compaction vocabulary arrangement, this is a comprehensive communication application. The discount has already been applied to the price in the App store www.itunes.apple.com/gb/developer/liberator-ltd/id580721039

CoughDrop are offering 50% off a lifetime subscription to their communication app, until the 5th April. A|s well as being available for iOS and Android, this open source product can also be used on a web browser or Windows platform.  www.app.mycoughdrop.com?ref=fb

Snap + Core First are offering a 15% discount until the 15th April. For Winsows and iOS platforms, this app uses a core and fringe vocabulary layout to provide access to a wide vocabulary. More information can be found at www.tobiidynavox.com/products/software

Pyramid Education Consultants, the company behind the PECS apps are offering a variety of discounts on their apps, including the PECS III and PECS IV+ for the entire month of April. Visit https://pecs-unitedkingdom.com/apps/ for more information on these and other apps.

Recently launched, the website www.autismservicesireland.com aims to provide families with a one stop shop to find professionals specialising in the area, from home tutors to therapists.

Amazon Echo Buttons

Game features

The amazon echo buttons come in packs of two costing around €20, making them very affordable. The echo buttons began as a children’s game console. Alexa can play a wide variety of games including: Amazon Echo Buttons

  • Trivial Pursuit Tap

Alexa asks a question from one of six categories and friends compete to buzz their echo button first and answer the question correctly.

  • Hanagram

Alexa reads a series of clues and the first person to buzz their echo button and solve the puzzle gets a point.

  • Bandit Buttons

This game requires two to four players. Too score a point you must be the first person to tap your button when all buttons turn the same colour. The person with the most taps wins.

  • Squeak in the Night

2-4 mice go on the hunt for any food they can find, however they must keep away from the cat lucy.

These are the apps introduced with the buttons, however there is a much wider variety in the amazon store, many of which are free.

SmartHome features

As well as the fun games available, you can add smarthome features to the echo buttons. Simply click the top left corner of the homepage of the alexa app, out of the options that appear click on routines. Click the plus symbol in the top right corner of routines. Firstly choose “when this happens” then select the echo button. You will be asked to click the echo button you wish to perform the task. Finally click “add action”, followed by smart home. Here there will be multiple functions for the button to perform, for example “turn on lamp”. Once you have selected the function you want, click save and play around with the buttons as much as you want.

The good: Echo buttons are very good value and they allow you to perform household jobs eg, turning on and off the lights with ease.

The not so good: The buttons only allow for one function each, for example if one button has already been programmed to turn on the bedroom light, it cannot be programmed to do anything else.

The verdict: For such a reasonable price, echo buttons can carry out functions that are very beneficial to home owners.

 

XAC (XBOX Adaptive Controller) User Review

I have always been a bit of a gamer. From Tetris on the original Gameboy to Sonic and the SEGA Mega Drive, I was always keen to pass the time away rapidly instructing a cartoon character to bounce from one side of the screen to another. Since I acquired my disability in 1999 though I felt
that large parts of this world were now no longer accessible to me. I felt with limited use of my arms and no use of my fingers consoles were out of the question. That changed recently when the Xbox brought out their new accessible controller.

I had tried to use several different games on the PlayStation and the Xbox, my nephew had a PlayStation and I had been able to use the left stick and some of the buttons on the ordinary controller but despite me telling him not to use the trigger buttons which were inaccessible to me I still got hammered several times by him on FIFA.

This new accessible controller seemed as though it would provide me with the opportunity to have the full experience of console gaming again, but who is going to buy an Xbox One and accessible controller just to see if they can use it or not? Thankfully Enable Ireland came to my rescue and
they allowed me to borrow their console and controller for the period of a month.


XBox Adaptive Controller (XAC)

The controller is simple to use and simple to set up. I needed some help to physically plug some aids in and out of the controller but apart from that it was a breeze.

The controller is setup for people of all abilities. The variety of configurations is as wide as the number of disabilities of the people who it is geared to provide for.

The xbox adaptive controller with some compatible accessories, switches, one handed joystick


I used the controller mainly for games like FIFA, Ryse, Forza 5, and some slightly more intricately controlled games like Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield.

Some games I used just the accessible controller with the coloured plug in switches that Enable Ireland provided alongside the console.

For other more complicated games, I used the Co-Pilot feature. The Co-Pilot feature allows you to use the ordinary controller as best you can while using the accessible controller switches for any bits or buttons on the ordinary controller that you can’t access.

Forza 5

Forza 5 cover
Forza switch setup. 4 switches. break, go , left , right

My setup for Forza, the car racing game, was the simplest of all. I took 4 of the aid switches and plugged them into the accessible controller, one was plugged into RT for the accelerator, one was plugged into LT for the brake, and the remaining two were plugged into the left and right ports on
the d-pad. I placed the RT switch under my elbow to continuously accelerate, which then meant my hands only had to focus on the three remaining buttons for steering and braking. That was a huge success, and meant I did not need any assistance throughout any of the gameplay on that particular game. Though that does not mean I was a great driver!

using elbow switch for accellator left only 3 switches to operate and drive successfully

FIFA 19

FIFA 19 Cover
switch setup for FIFA 19. One switch on arm rest, two on right leg, one on left leg and the xbox controller

For FIFA I used the Co-Pilot feature. I used the ordinary controller as I had done previously with my nephew, steering my player with the left stick while passing, tackling, shooting, etc with the usual A, B, X, and Y buttons.

I used the Xbox Accessible Controller then for the sprint and switch player options. I simply plugged in the switches into the RT and LT ports on the accessible controller and played normally on the ordinary controller while occasionally tapping the switches to change player or holding them down
with my elbow to sprint.

A very successful and intelligent solution which resulted in a 5-1 victory for me over my nephew! His face was a picture 🙂

Ryse, GTA & Battlefield

Ryse cover
Grand Theft Auto cover
Battlefield cover

Each of these I played with a similar set up to FIFA (pictured above). I used the Co-Pilot feature, the ordinary controller in conjunction with the accessible controller with four switches plugged into the RT, LT, RB, and LB ports.

Mainstream controller supplemented by a switch on the armrest, two on right knee and one on left

These games were a bit more intricate in their controls in comparison to the others and a little more difficult to use as a result. The accessible controller meant though that it was possible for me to at least give it a go. This controls setup was good and meant that I actually completed the story mode of Ryse, on easy.

I could play the vast majority of GTA and Battlefield without any difficulty, but there were certain issues. To use the character’s “special abilities” in GTA you had to press down on both the left and right sticks. I think you could set that up but that would require two more switches which I didn’t have.

Also, on occasion, while I had all the right buttons the scenario in the game was so complex that it involved pressing a number of buttons and steering at least one, if not both, sticks at the same time. It was almost equivalent to playing some musical instrument. On one mission I did have to fall back on some assistance from my nephew.

Conclusion

While it is still not quite the same as gaming prior to my disability the Xbox Accessible Controller has reopened the prospect of gaming properly on a regular basis and owning a console of my own again. This was a world that I thought had long left me behind but thanks to Microsoft and Xbox I’m
right back in the game!

Free Smart Home solution: OpenHAB

Screen shot of Openhab UI

OpenHAB is a free and open source solution for the smart home.  In the quickly growing smart home market, the industry has come up with a vast number of standards, protocols and products, for example, Apple HomeKit, Amazon Echo or Google Home. They usually don’t integrate well together as there is hardly any interoperability across vendors.  Also, the only thing they connect to is their respective cloud service, which could mean a typical smart home may depend on many remote servers. The openHAB project has attracted a large developer community, which looks at the smart home from a user perspective: This makes features like offline capability, data privacy and customisability top priorities for a smart home solution.

The good: The openHAB project makes features like offline capability, data privacy and customisability top priorities for a smart home solution.

The not so good: complicated initial setup with a steep learning curve. It presumes a level of technical competence to allow for successful setup.

The verdict: This solution for the smart home has clear benefits over current smart home solutions with regard to reliability, latency (that is, the time it takes for a signal to reach and turn on/off a device) and data privacy.


Further information: https://www.openhab.org/

Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level

This weeks post was contributed by Wyn McCormack, co-author of the Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level . Wyn has been involved with the Dyslexia Association of Ireland for over 20 years and has designed and presented courses on dyslexia for parents, teachers and students.  She has written extensively on the topic including Lost for Words, a Practical Guide to Dyslexia at Second Level, (3rd Ed.  2006), and Dyslexia, An Irish Perspective (3nd Ed. 2011) as well as being the co-author of the Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level in 2013 (updated 2014, 2015, 2016).  She has been a presenter for SESS, the Special Education Support Service.   She is a former Guidance Counsellor and Special Educational Needs teacher.  Her three sons have dyslexia.

*  *  *  *

In 2014 the Dyslexia Association of Ireland asked myself and Mary Ball, an educational psychologist to write the Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level to celebrate their 40th anniversary.  The key objective of the Factsheets was to give teachers clear and concise information on dyslexia, how it affects students and how schools and teachers can help. With dyslexia affecting approximately one in ten people, there are many thousands of students with dyslexia in schools.

There are 18 Factsheets.  The majority were intended for teachers and schools and cover topics such as teaching literacy, numeracy, foreign languages, Maths and Assistive Technology.  Factsheet 16 is for parents on how they can help and Factsheet 17 is for students on study strategies.

I update the Factsheets annually in August and they are available for free download at www.dyslexiacourses.ie.  After putting the work into writing them, I really wanted to get them widely used.   In 2014 I had taken early retirement as a Guidance Counsellor and Special Education Teacher.  So I set up Dyslexia Courses Ireland to offer schools, parents and students courses on dyslexia friendly strategies and AT resources.  I was then joined by Deirdre McElroy, a school colleague who had worked as a NEPS educational psychologist.  The courses have been really well received.  Since 2014 we have had just under 3000 teachers, 540 parents and 480 students attend our courses.  We run courses at central venues for teachers and also give presentations to the teaching staff within schools.  At this stage we have been to schools in every county (outside of N. Ireland).  In 2018 in the last week of August which is the first week of the school year, we presented courses in 14 schools.

The course for students is a study skills workshop.  Students with dyslexia may experience difficulties with organisation, reading, memory and learning, note-taking, writing and spelling.  They may find it hard to show what they know in exams due to misreading questions and poorly structured answers.  The workshop covers strategies that help the student to achieve and which also target their specific difficulties.

A key element of the teacher courses is that while we share ideas with the teachers, we ask them to recommend websites, Apps, and strategies that they are using in the classroom.  As a result we have an extensive list of recommended websites.  The teachers generously have allowed us to share these.  We do this by twice a year sending out a newsletter to all schools as well as to those who attended our courses.   The recommendations have grown so much that while we did have one handout called Useful websites/APPS on Keynotes, subject specific resources, study skills, exam preparation, assistive technology and on-line tutorials, we have had to split it into one for teachers and one for students. Both are available under downloads on the website.

While my favourite websites vary over time, some really helpful ones are as follows;

  • alison.com for on-line tutorials in Project Maths at Junior and Leaving Cert.
  • sparknotes.com and, in particular, their short videos of Shakespearian plays and the No Fear guides where the Shakespearian words are on side of the page with a modern English translation on the other.
  • studystack.com with flashcards and games when key facts have to be learnt.

Just in the last month, I was told about www.canva.com and www.spark.adobe.com which allow infographics be created.

The reason I am so involved is that my three sons are dyslexic and I realised much more needed to be done at second level.  As I have travelled with them on their journey through education, I also realised there was a reason why I could never tell left from right and that I also shared some of dyslexic traits.  These experiences have helped me appreciate the difficulties which many students with dyslexia face in school.

I hope the factsheets contribute to greater awareness of dyslexia at second level and all the ways that teachers and schools can support the these students.

Wyn McCormack

Pen Reader for students with dyslexia

Pen Reader a tool designed with students with dyslexia in mindA few weeks ago, we attended a demonstration of the C-Pen Reader, a tool designed with students with dyslexia in mind. This device, with its pen shape and an OLED screen with text to speech output, assists those with literacy difficulties to read.

It is a simple to use device, whereby the reader runs the tip of the pen over the word or words that they wish to hear spoken aloud.  Using realistic speech synthesiser software, the student can hear the text read aloud by the inbuilt speaker or by using ear phones.

There is also the option, when a single word is scanned, to hear an Oxford English dictionary definition of the word, and to have the word magnified on screen, useful for those who may have visual impairments.

There is also the option to scan and save text to the internal storage in the pen and transfer to a PC or Mac computer for use later, a handy option for those who may not have access to a scanner.

While there is a separate version of the pen available, the ExamReader, with limited functionality (i.e. no internal storage or dictionary features) that will meet the criteria for State Exams, the standard pen can be turned into an ExamReader by choosing a locked mode.

The C-Pen also works in French and Spanish, while the ExamReader can read German and Italian in addition. There is also the ability to record voice notes on the C-Pen.

While there are many differing options, both hardware and app based, available for those with literacy difficulties or using English as a second language requiring text to speech functionality, the C-pen has its niche market in the education sector where the use of mobile phone apps or bulky hardware may make the use of text to speech difficult or impossible. The c-pen is a user-friendly option that is easily transportable and can be personalised.

More information can be found at www.readerpen.com, and schools and colleges can arrange for a free trial for their students. The  C-pen costs €225 ex VAT.

Voice Banking – ModelTalker

Voice Banking involves the recording of a list of sentences into a computer. When enough recordings have been captured, software chops them up into individual sounds, phonetic units. A synthetic voice can then be built out of these phonetic units, this is called Concatenative speech synthesis. The number of sentences or statements needed to build a good quality English language synthetic voice using this process varies but is somewhere between 600 and 3500. This will take at least 8 hours of constant recording. Most people break it up over a few weeks which is recommended as voice quality will deteriorate over the course of a long session. So 20 minutes to half an hour in the morning (when most people’s voices are clearer) would be a good approach. The more recordings made the better quality the resulting voice will be.

There are a number of services offering voice banking and we have listed some that we are aware of below. The technology used varies from service to service and this post isn’t intended to be a guide to which service may be appropriate to a particular user. Our advice would be to investigate all options before making a decision as this process will be a considerable investment of time and in some cases money.

A person might choose to bank their voice for a number of reasons. The most common reason would be if someone has been diagnosed with a progressive illness like Motor Neuron Disease (MND/ALS) or similar that will result in the loss of speech. A voice is a very personal thing and being able to keep this aspect of individuality and identity can be important. The MND Association have detailed information Voice Banking on their website here.  People unable to speak from birth can also take advantage of this technology. The VocalID service (although expensive) seems to offer good options in this regard. A family member could donate their voice by going through the voice banking process (or they could choose an appropriate donated voice). This synthetic voice could then be modified with filters modelled on the users own vocalisations. The result is a unique and personal voice with some of the regional qualities (accent, pronunciation) that reflect their background and heritage. Irish AAC user have historically had little choice when it came to selecting a voice, most grudgingly accepting the BBC newsreader upper-class English voice that was ubiquitous in communication devices. In Ireland, where an accents can vary significantly over such small geographical areas, how you speak is perhaps even more tied to your identity than other countries. Hopefully in the near future we will be hearing AAC users communicating in Cork, Limerick and Dublin accents!

ModelTalker

For research purposes I used the ModelTalker service to create a synthetic voice. I wanted to see how well it dealt with the Irish accent. The ModelTalker service is run out of the Nemours Speech Research Laboratory (SRL) in the Nemours Center for Pediatric Auditory and Speech Sciences (CPASS) at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. It is not a commercial service, only costing a nominal $100 to download your voice once banked. They offer an Online Recorder that works directly in the Chrome Browser or you can download and install their MTVR App if you are using the Windows OS. The only investment you need to make to begin banking your voice is a decent quality USB headset. I used the Andrea NC-181 (about €35). For the best quality they recommend you record about 1600 sentences but they can build a voice from 800. As this was just an experiment I recorded the minimum 800. At the beginning of each session you go through a sound check. Consistency is an important factor contributing to the overall quality of the finished voice. This is why you need to keep using the same computer and microphone throughout the whole process, ideally in the same location. When you begin you will hear the first statement read out, you then record the statement yourself. A colour code will give you feedback on whether the recording was acceptable or not. Red means it wasn’t good enough to use and so you should try again. Yellow is okay, could be better and green means perfect, move on. I found the Irish accent resulted in a lot of yellow. Don’t let this worry you too much. A nice feature for Irish people who want to engage in this process is the ability to recording custom sentences. They recommend that you at least record your own name. So many names and places in Ireland are anglicised versions of Irish that it would be worthwhile spending a bit of time on these custom sentences. “Siobhán is from Drogheda” for example would be incomprehensible using most Text to Speech. At the end of each session you upload your completed sentences which are added to your inventory (if using the browser based recorder they are added as you go). When you feel you have enough completed you can request your voice. When the voice is ready you need to audition it, this process allows you to fine tune how it sounds. I made a screen recording of this process and I will add it to this post when I have edited it down to a manageable length.

Click play below to hear a sample of my synthesized voice. Yes, unfortunately I do kind of sound like that J

Speech synthesis is an area of technology that is progressing rapidly thanks to the interest of big multinationals like Google (listen to their DeepMind powered WaveNet Voices here) and Adobe (caused a stir and even concern in some quarters with project VoCo in 2016). Looking at the two previous examples it’s not hard to imagine that a high quality unique voice could be built from a short sample in the near future.

Voice Banking Services

More about Voice Banking

Good resource on Voice Banking from the MND Association: https://www.mndassociation.org/forprofessionals/aac-for-mnd/voice-banking/

Recent article from the Guardian about Voice Banking, focusing on VocalID: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/23/voice-replacement-technology-adaptive-alternative-communication-vocalid

Apps for Adults with Autism

mobile phone with icons around the phone

For adults with Autism spectrum disorders/conditions, there are a number of apps available, on iOS, Android and web-based platforms, that can assist with daily life, including work, study etc. Below is a list of some that we have come across, and found to be beneficial.

Developing habits/routines

Name/Icon Description, Link Price
HabitRPG Habit building and productivity app that uses gamification to motivate. Collect points for completing good habits and avoiding bad habits.

iOS and Android

www.habitica.com

Free to download, in app purchases

Routinely

Establish, track, understand, and be more mindful of your daily routine. Set goals for each of the tasks and habits that make up your day, and then track your completion of those goals. Can send you notifications to remind you to complete your goals, and provides a history view to review past days.

iOS only

www.appadvice.com/app/routinely-track-your-daily-routine/1135990298

Free to download
Todoist Acts as a checklist, organiser, calendar, reminder and habit forming app. Can be shared with others for joint projects, integrated with other apps such as Dropbox and Alexa.

iOS and Android

www.todoist.com

Free, premium versions available.
Work Autonomy Designed to assist with person-generated communication with coworkers and supervisors regardless of linguistic or cognitive skill, tracking task analysis and work schedules independently, and allowing access to concrete information about work expectations, production etc.

iOS only

www.ableopps.com/work-autonomy

Paid, app, approximately €190

Mood trackers

MoodPanda Track your moods using graphs and calendars. Community aspect to offer support and advice

iOS, Android and web

www.moodpanda.com

T2 Mood Tracker Designed to help users track their emotions over time. It comes with six pre-installed areas, including Anxiety, Depression, Well-Being, and Stress. Users can also add and customize additional scales.

iOS and Android

www.psyberguide.org

Managing Over Stimulation

Miracle Modus Designed to help with sensory overload, by providing strong visual stimuli that move in predictable patterns.

iOS and Android

www.seebs.net/modus/

Free
Dropophone Create minimalist melodies for relaxation purposes

iOS only

www.lullatone.com/games/dropophone-app/

Free
Sensory apps Range of sensory apps to help with relaxation and overstimulation.

#iOS, Androd, Web, Chrome

www.sensoryapphouse.com

 

Free
Relax Melodies Melody and white noise app.

iOS and Android

www.ipnos.com

 

Free to download, in app purchases

Relaxation/mediation

Headspace A meditation and mindfulness app. Designed to guide the user through narrated sessions to focus on relaxation and help cope with stress and anxiety.

iOS, Android and online

www.mindspace.com

Free

Please do let us know if you have come across others!

Magnifier for Smart Phones and Tablet Devices: Claro MagX

App to magnify text or objects

Introduction

Claro MagX is an app that converts your iPhone, iPad or Android device into a visual magnifier. It basically makes small items bigger such as small text in a book or newspaper.  Just hold your phone up to whatever you want to magnify.

As the app can use the devices in-built flash, it can be used in a dimly lit area.  Advanced visual features include full-colour mode, two colour mode and grey scale mode. The app features 16 levels of magnification, high contrast and colour viewing options to make the text easier on your eyes.  Freeze mode option – tap the viewfinder to freeze the image for closer viewing. Tap the screen to release the freeze.


More apps from Claro

The good: Available free on iOS and Android and can be used on any tablet or phone.  It makes use of existing technology.

The not so good: Controls are small and hard to see on a small device.

The verdict: Great alternative to a dedicated handheld video magnifiers and is a useful app for anyone, but in particular for individuals with vision impairment.

Sensory Pod – Thinking outside the box

It appeared in the Cosmo room as if out of nowhere. Looking like a section of the international space station (one of the newer parts), it immediately grabs the attention of anybody who enters the room. Enable Ireland Children’s Services have been trialling a Sensory Pod over the last few months and both staff and clients are enthusiastic about it. I had a quick chat with Robert Byrne, creator of the Sensory Pod, while he was making some minor modifications based on feedback from our therapists.

view of the sensory pod from the side. sliding door is open, blue LED details on the end

In a previous job Robert Byrne spent a lot of time visiting manufacturers in Asia, which is when he first came across the idea of a capsule hotel. Due to population density, space in some Asian cities is at a premium. A capsule hotel consists of rooms that are only the size of the bed they contain. You have enough head room to sit up in bed but not enough to stand. In this corner of the world with our open spaces and high ceilings the thoughts of a night in such accommodation might cause us to break into a claustrophobic sweat, Robert however only saw an opportunity. Through a family member, Robert had experience of Autism. A common symptom reported by people with this form of neurodiversity is oversensitivity to stimuli: light, noise, touch and smells. It is this aspect of Autism that can actually prevent some people from engaging in everyday activities such as work and education. Robert noticed how successful the capsule hotel room was at shielding its occupant from such outside stimuli and realised it could be a very cost effective way to provide a safe and comfortable space for schools and colleges.

He took the basic design of the capsule room and customised it to suit this new function. inside the sensory pod with green mood lighting. Control console and mirror at centre on frameAlong with his design team, he reinforced the plastic shell and mounted the pod in a steel frame, with an extra bed that can be pulled out alongside the Pod. This provides a comfortable area for a parent or caregiver to relax when the Pod is occupied. They added LED mood lighting, temperature control, audio and 22” learning screen. The design is modular, allowing customisation to best suit individual client’s needs, full details are on the Sensory Pod site.

It’s all very well having a good idea but it takes a particular type of person to be able to see it through to a marketable product. The Sensory Pod have built an extensive portfolio manufacturing and designing sleep systems and safe spaces for some of the Largest Corporate companies across Europe and further afield. They played a key role in Dublin City University’s successful Autism Friendly Campus initiative. Students can apply for a smart card and book a time slot. Using their card they can open the pod door and escape the hustle and bustle of campus life for an hour.