Few can legitimately boast that an iPhone app changed their life but for 10-year-old Grace Domican, unable to speak due to autism, the touchscreen phone has given her a voice for the first time.
Her mother, Lisa Domican, created a picture-based iPhone application to help her communicate and the tool was so successful she is now trialling it in a school for autistic children in Ireland.
Domican, who was born in Australia and lived here until she moved to Ireland in 2001, is also planning to provide it to schools in Australia and is selling both iPhone and iPad versions on the iTunes App Store.
Aspect, Australia's largest non-profit organisation providing support for people with autism, has expressed interest in trialling the app with its clients, while Domican said she had also been in contact with the Woodbury School in Baulkham Hills.
The Grace app is essentially a digital version of the Picture Exchange Communications System - a book of laminated pictures attached to a board by velcro that allows children with autism to build sentences and communicate.
Children with autism are often unable to use and understand expressive language.
Children with autism are often unable to use and understand expressive language because the developmental disability means those parts of the brain don't work. Some children with autism go on to develop speech, while others never do.
As the child learns new words via pictures they are added to the PECS book, a system that quickly becomes unwieldy, particularly outside the home setting.
"You have to take the photo, print the photo, laminate the photo, velcro it and repeat this every time they decide they like something new," said Domican, whose older son Liam, 12, also has autism.
With the app, which is being sold for $45 on the App Store with some of the proceeds going to charity, Grace has access to more than 400 symbols and photos in the palm of her hand. She can add new ones herself by taking pictures with the phone's camera.
Domican is able to share new words and interests instantly with Grace's carers and teachers so they can use them in their interactions with the child.
The iPhone's touchscreen was critical as Grace was used to pointing at the pictures in her PECS book, so it was second nature to open and operate the apps.
"With the phone showing exactly what she has requested, it is now very clear to all of us what she needs and we see a huge reduction in frustration behaviour as a result," Domican said.
"Grace is capable of a two- to three-hour tantrum that leaves your ears ringing, so this is a good thing."
Now the app is being trialled on several of Grace's fellow students at a Saplings school in Ireland, designed specifically for children who cannot be taught in mainstream schools. Members of the public have been donating their second-hand iPhones, which are then cleaned up and donated to autism schools.
Domican even credits the app with improving Grace's verbal communication, saying she can now make many three- to four-word verbal requests, such as "I want to drink" or "I want purple chocolate" (Cadbury).
Anthony Warren, Aspect's director for children, young people and families, said he thought the Grace app was "a great idea" but suspected it would not be a substitute for the formal PECS program. He said he was sure Aspect's schools and speech pathologists would be interested in trialling it.
"It certainly sounds as though it would be very motivating and helpful for clients who have higher support needs and who are motivated by that sort of technology," he said.
Domican said she got the idea for the app after seeing iPhone ads on the sides of buses just before the device launched in Ireland. The telco O2 Telefonica supplied her with an iPhone after meeting Domican at a World Autism Day event.
Last year, Domican tracked down an iPhone developer, Steve Troughton Smith, who helped her make the app. Since the pictures used by Grace were owned by a company, Domican had to draw sketches of each image she would need for a basic vocabulary and then contracted an artist to make professional, digital versions.
Smith created a prototype of the app in September and "by the end of November we had four additional phones and we were trialling it with three more children in the school".
Domican and her family have lived in Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney. They regularly fly down to visit family in Ballarat.
Liam was diagnosed in the Royal Brisbane Hospital in 2000 and attended the Autistic Association of Queensland school in Brighton for almost a year. Grace was diagnosed by a paediatrician in Ballarat in September 2001, just before the family moved to Ireland.
Domican said she would like to move back to Australia but said at the moment there were inadequate provisions for autistic kids in state-funded schools.
"A one size fits all special needs education would not suit kids like mine and their potential could be lost," she said.
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