ITASD -Valencia 2012 begonapino.com
Users becoming designers
B.Pino (APNA - SPAIN)
We propose here that the ease of use of IT Tools has increased in such a way that it
allows users, formerly passive consumers of software and web content, to became not
only active participants in design processess but actual leaders of IT projects. In
particular, parents and professionals who work with individual with autism, are generally
very keen to gather information and resources to help the very specific needs of their
children, taking it as far as to create the resources they need.
We realised that there was a gap between what was being developed and the end user.
As reviewed extensively at Pino (2006), there are a few research projects specific to
autism and technology that have searched into robotics (Weir & Emmanuel, 1976;
Dautenhahn, 1998; Werry et al. 2001), artificial intelligence (Lehman, 1998), virtual
reality (Cobb, Kerr y Glover, 2001; Herrera et. al., 2005) and more. They are fascinating
and expensive projects that, unfortunatelly, do not reach mainstream.
On the other hand, there are several applications that are more accessible to the public
but not so well supported by research. This is not to say that they are not valuable, just,
that they cannot be used instead of professional intervention. furthermore, we consider
more important the use we make of it than the technology itself, and there are several
ways of using everyday software that empower people with autism (Pino 2006b). It is
probably in this group where most of IT use in autism falls.
Also, "design for all" is the concept behind accessible design that has been pushed into
the developers world for a while now. It implies to get users involved into the design
process, to get their opinion about usability and functionality issues, improving the
accessibility of the final product. We go a little further asking for the accessibility to be
'built in' mainstream products, so people with autism can use what everybody use, both
as an equal rights issue and ease of access, since searching and testing adaptations
requires time, knowledge and resources (Pino 2010). However, the principle is essentially
'bring the users in'. Even though things have become so much better to the point that
users are asked for their needs before deciding on any developement, the lead is in the
It is clear that individuals with autism, parents, teachers, psychologists, and all sort of
professionals deal every day with the dif4iculties of this condition. They know what they
need, and we believe that if they know what is available in terms of technology, they will
use it. Four years ago we presented a workshop at Tecnoneet 2008 to give some basic
understanding of technological language to practitioners in order to equip them with the
ability to communicate their ideas to technologists. We wanted professionals to take the
lead of technological projects.
In the early days of technology only programmers had the skill to develop software.
Then, when there was the boom of the internet, only web programmers had the
knowledge, and it would take a lot to create a static website. Then things started to
change: web 2.0 and the tools that came with it, such as blogs, content management
systems, etc, made it easier for the regular user to have a space on the net that they
could easily create and update. There is an active online autism-friendly community
using blogs, and social networks to exchange information and share interests.
At the same time, conventional software became more usable and powerful, and whereas
long time ago you needed very expensive and complex software to edit video, now there
are very simple video editing tools that are fast and easy to learn. In fact, you may not
need dedicated software anymore, since the last version of Powerpoint allows you to do
ITASD -Valencia 2012 begonapino.com
some basic editing with video. It is now possible to create a simple animation movie
using Powerpoint transition and animation features. Although this is just an example, we
mentioned because we have a student with autism very fond of animations and it is an
easy way for him to create his own, instead of having to rely on somebody else to do it
for him. It gives him a sense of control. Also, parents or teachers who want to prepare a
child for an event, or create a social story, can now do so without having to install and
learn a new tool, considering windows is the most extended operating system and that
almost every one uses MS Office.
As reported at Pino (2010) Videogame industry has afforded some groundbreaking
interfaces. Started with Nintendo Wii, which uses a control, the wii-remote, to follow the
players movements, and it was followed by competitors Sony and Microsoft. Playstation
Move looks very similar to the Wii-remote but more precise, and together with a camera
that recognises faces and movements it would have the advantage of interfacing with
better graphical games. Microsoft Kinect uses cameras to learn where the user is,
representing his or her movements by means of an avatar. Steinberg (2010) observes
that most of the games for Kinetic are similar to the Wii's, but other applications seem
promising: browsing menus with a flick of a wrist or play with virtual pets. The pc drivers
for Kinect are now available and there should be several kinect-based projects in the
There are many other input devices such as switches, gloves, haptic systems or voice
recognition. Vocal joystick, (Bilmes et al., 2006) is a system that maps vowel sounds to
spatial directions, which allows a user to control a computer or another system using his
voice. Also new systems use brain waves to control videogames: Neurosky checks
relaxation to control a few toys, whereas users can play Gran Turismo with SmartBrain
Technologies system which makes the game to slow down if attention wears down
And then tablets (iphone, ipod touch and ipads to start, then all the others) came along
bringing not only a new interface but an affordable communication and entertainment
center all in one device. Dedicated systems cannot compete in cost and versatility with a
device that can play movies, music, and endless games, as well as serve as agenda,
augmented communication system, bring access to the internet, and execute all sorts of
In the new device the input is done by a finger and the effect is right in front of your
eyes, exactly where the finger is. This is one of the most basic actions for humans:
pointing, and essential for communication. It is mastered a lot earlier than using a
mouse, that require more sophisticated motor skills and the conceptual challenge of
moving a mouse in one place, which is represented by a cursor on the screen, so the eye
and the hand are in different places. -We had children with autism as young as 5 playing
with computer games using mouse without a problem, but there are babies under a year
of age using a tablet...
Although the list of apps is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with them,
iautism.info is an extensive review website where a user may want to check if there is an
app that meets his or her needs.
It is also important that parents and teachers can get their hands on personalised
solutions the easiest way possible. They have found that if theres is not an app, they can
create it. If we consider important to validate apps, it is also important to be able to use
small apps that entertain or help children with autism in their tasks.
Programming without programming
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Professional apps, with complex programming in native operating systems, or graphic
intensive work: 50-100.000€. There is the 'do it yourself' option, programming in iOS for
example. Having a programming background and attending a 40 hours training course
into iPhone programming, we have only grasped the essential concepts of iPhone
programming, so this would not be the way to go for fast and easy programming of apps.
However, there are a lot of simple games, sequences, agendas, and similar apps that do
not require sophisticated design and that can be easily delivered either by using some of
the tools in the market, which are a lot more affordable.
For example, frameworks such as Corona SDK cuts down development time by five
times, uses a simple language called LUA, and, after submitting your code to their
servers, delivers the apps for iPhone (iPad) and Android. To show how simple it could be
to learn and use, there is a tutorial online on how to build a game in 8 minutes. In our
trial, it took more than an hour to follow the tutorial, but just that game alone is simple
enough to manipulate so to change the object that bounces on the screen that we could
'tune it' to our specific child very easily. Gamesalad is another tool we have tested and
allowed us to build a game in 20 minutes. It is for desktop computers but it is free.
Considering that there is almost a computer in every home and classroom, it is an almost
cost free option for those who cannot afford a tablet.
There are several tools (Kendo, Rhomobile, Phonegap, Appcelerator, Unity, and many
Python. There are also tools that do not require a single line of code (Whoop, Taplynx,
MobDis), although they are a little bit more limited. And finally, there are companies that
will produce the idea for a big part of the profits.
Furthermore, it is possible to skip development altogether, or, in other words, to have an
app without having to create and upload to the app store of whatever operating system
we choose. This is only useful for a very basic functionality: showing a sequence, or
similar. Taking an iPod touch as target device, if you wanted to show a sequence of steps
in order to prepare a child for an event, such as a visit to the doctor, going to the
movies, etc., or build a social story, it is very simple to design a slide show in
Powerpoint (or any other editing tool), save all the slides as images and upload them
through iTunes to your device. Similarly, you can save a document as pdf and view it on
the device, up. Although there are many limitations to this approach, it allows the
user/designer to create personalised material with minimal technological knowledge and
In general terms, once you are familiar with the possibilities afforded by technology, it is
possible to start from an educational goal to plan a technological project. When you know
whom it is for, which goals it intends to achieve, and resources availble, you have the
constraints to define specific tasks and technologies.
Such technology may be a simple videogame, a tablet app, or an interactive
environment. In particular, the reasons to develop your own app could be that you
cannot find it, and now you can create it. If you want the app you need for a specific goal
with specific requirements, it is unlikely you will find it in the app store, specially if it
involves a very unusual 'special interest'. And, if you have a clear idea of the app,
knowledge is not an issue, since there are companies that will do it for you, for a part of
the profits, or services that simplify the coding required.
Tu sum it up, the steps to develop your own app could be like this:
1. Define the audience
2. Define the goals
3. Define requirements
4. Take inventory of your resources: knowledge (are you a programmer?), time (to
invest in the project, to deliver the app), money (to pay someone to do it). These
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factors will define the course of action: do it yourself, pay someone or partner
with a company to do it.
5. Develop, test, evaluate.
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Subramanya, A., Landay, J., Dowden, P., and Chizeck, H. (2006) "The Vocal Joystick,"
IEEE Intl. Conf. on Audio, Speech and Signal Processing, Toulouse, France, May 2006
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