Program teaches autistic children figurative thinking

Researchers at the University of Valencia’s Robotics Institute have developed a computer program specifically designed to assist children with autism in acquiring figurative thinking skills.

The cereal-filled spoon as a toy aeroplane and the clenched hand as a puppet face may make sense to most young children, but those with autism often are unable to make the imaginative leaps of logic required to transform the ordinary into something playful.

Now, using OpenGL Performer software from SGI, researchers at the University of Valencia’s Robotics Institute, have developed a computer program specifically designed to assist children with autism in acquiring figurative thinking skills.

Currently unavailable to the general public, the program is set to be distributed in Spanish to more than 50 autism organisations throughout Spain this December and possibly world-wide in English a year later.

‘The Autism and Learning Disabilities Group of the Robotics Institute has developed a virtual supermarket of exercises for working on imagination,’ explained Gerardo Herrera Gutierrez, the lead researcher on the project.

‘Many autistic children have trouble understanding symbolism, which means they have trouble imagining and playing. Graphical computer programs can be useful devices for showing the imaginary transformation of objects that children with autism find difficult to understand. In early testing, first, informal results suggest that the program we’ve developed truly helps some children begin to grasp the idea of symbolism. The profile of the children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder for whom this technology can be of great benefit is the child who has an imagination-related impairment and, at the same time, has a good potential for learning with no general learning difficulties,’ he added.

The program is deceptively simple and features such images as a pair of black jeans representing a road, with seams serving as lane dividers, and a watermelon doubling as a giant punch bowl whose contents can be drunk through an imaginary straw.

‘The program is built on OpenGL Performer because it works across a spectrum of other operating systems, which is crucial for a program of this kind that we hope to distribute world-wide over the next two years,’ he added.

Development of the University of Valencia program and its distribution within Spain is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology, the Spanish Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Regional Government of Valencia. Funding for development and worldwide distribution of an English-language version in 2004 is yet to be secured.