Is a line just a line? Do people with autism see a simple black line drawn on a page the same way I do, or does it come to life like most things that attract the attention of these brilliant minds, the potential of which we as society have only glimpsed?
A great deal of research has been done on understanding autism and its impact on individuals with the condition, their families and society, as well as its related speech disorders, the genetics involved, parental age, food, vaccinations and the brain. But I would follow a different line of enquiry, one that might seem irrelevant and even inapt, but may contribute to the cognitive ability of young children with autism learning words for the first time.
After reading many research articles, I believe that people with autism see colour, shapes and lines in greater detail – an ability which I envy of to a certain degree. I can only see a few shades of green, for example grass green or lime green – the colour of my favourite milkshake. The shades I see are limited to my perceptual ability. Famous natural philosopher, physicist, chemist and scientist Henry Cavendish, whom people now believe may have had autism, had the amazing ability to distinguish many different shades of green – more shades of green, it seems, than the number of shades of grey most people are familiar with.
There is a down side to this ability, however, that relates to the perception of lines and print. World-renowned spokesperson for autism and professor of animal science Dr Temple Grandin, who also has autism, noted that some of the students in her class experienced difficulties with their design assignments. They submitted drawings in which the lines were squiggly and wavy instead of smooth arcs. Because of her own experience with autism, Dr Grandin came to understand that print on pages could seem to move, jiggle and become blurred, and that lines would disappear. These visual limitations are linked to a disorder called Irlen syndrome.
Dr Grandin found a unique way to tackle this problem. She sent these students to a photocopy shop with a book and told them to experiment with photocopies using paper of different pastel shades until they found a colour that made the print appear clear and stationary.
Dr Grandin then suggested her students try sunglasses with different coloured lenses to see if they helped them see print more clearly. One student noted with delight that she aced her economics test because the PowerPoint presentations she saw in class had stopped jiggling and the numbers finally stood still so she could read them. For another four-year-old girl, a pair of pink sunglasses from Disney World helped her tolerate an hour at Walmart where she had previously only managed five minutes.
It would appear that visual elements and principles of design may play an important role in improving the cognitive ability of young children with autism when learning new words or the alphabet. Research in this area may not seem as important as the medical research relating to autism, but may nonetheless prove valuable in giving young children with autism a voice.
At the University of Pretoria, we are currently doing research to identify design elements and principles that promote language learning in young children with autism. Children are given the opportunity to play with three different apps that teach them language. Using the latest eye-tracking technology and video coding, we hope to identify which of the design elements and principles come to the forefront, contributing to learning words and the alphabet.
Access to tablets and the Internet has led to a sort of revolution in the learning process of children with autism, enabling them to absorb and process information more easily than conventional education systems allow. A 2013 study showed that speech-generating apps help autistic children learn language faster than traditional methods. It is becoming clear that designers working on learning apps for children with autism need guidelines to ensure the apps are designed for optimal learning.
The study is still at an early stage, but by understanding what holds the learners’ attention and comparing that to how non-autistic learners interact with the app, we hope to find patterns in the interactions between learner and technology.
These findings will eventually be compiled into a guide that designers can use when creating language apps for autistic children. With new and better ways to learn language and social skills, these special children stand a better chance at a happy and normal life.
Ms Ilse de Bruin is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. Supervisors: Dr Ronel Callaghan, Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education; Prof Marlien Herselman, CSIR; and Prof Helene Gelderblom, from the Department of Informatics.