Students build app for children with autism

Emily Williams

Three University of Alabama undergraduate students have developed an app that aids in teaching autistic children to recognize facial emotions and are receiving national recognition for their work by publishing a book chapter about their research.

Lauren Lambert, a junior majoring in psychology, Cassidy Lamm, a junior majoring in computer science, and Joshua Wolfe, a sophomore majoring in computer science, developed the app Learning Emotions with Autism. Working with them are Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science, and Angela Barber, assistant professor in the department of communicative disorders.

They first began research in fall 2011 when they were paired up with Gray through the Emerging Scholars freshman research program. For Lambert and Lamm, who had no experience working in computer science when they began, one of the most difficult parts of creating the app was the actual programming. They worked with a special program from MIT called the App Inventor.

“It’s kind of like putting a puzzle together. Instead of having to type in programming language, you just put blocks together,” Lambert said.

The app is composed of three segments: a learning portion, a quiz portion and a portion where students can play Charades with their peers to demonstrate that they can recognize facial emotions.

“One of our biggest hurdles was figuring out what kind of pictures to use and what kind of interface to use to make sure that it didn’t demand too much from the child,” Wolfe said. “When you’re working with children, what better way to engage them other than charades?”

Lamm said much of the design process depends on the reaction they receive once the app has been tested.

“The most difficult part of development was figuring out what we wanted it to be and look like,” Lamm said. “That’s still something we have to think about. Will the children respond better if the pictures are of real people instead of cartoons? Will they be able to read the buttons?”

Barber, who specializes in identification and early intervention of children with autism, described how the app is different from similar apps.

“There are two things that I think make this app particularly relevant,” Barber said. “One is that it is developed to be used in a social situation, rather than just the child with the device. Secondly, we wanted to make something that we could measure, because, yes, there are a few thousand apps that are designed to be used with children with autism, but we don’t know yet if those are effective.”

The chapter, co-authored with Gary Edwards from the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Birmingham, will provide a detailed tutorial explaining how to develop an app using App Inventor, and Wolfe said they hope this encourages other researchers to do similar work.

“We want to expose to the Autism Research community that you can also do what we did too,” Wolfe said. “We made an app for children with autism; if you see a need that you can corner, you can also make an app for that. You don’t have to have extensive programming knowledge; you don’t have to have a master’s in computer science to do something like this.”