Mobile app helps autistic children communicate

An estimated millions of children in China are affected with autism spectrum disorder, which causes reduced emotional response and behavioral problems. But with the increasing awareness of autism in China, more efforts are being made to help autistic children and their families. A Chinese–language mobile phone app called Yuu-dee or Little Rain Drop has been designed for autistic children with minimal verbal capabilities.

It’s too bright. I fell on the floor. These pictures and phrases can help when three-year-old Wenqiang has difficulties in communicating with his mother. The icons are easy to understand and when pressed, the app will speak out a short sentence or phrase, so his mother can know what he wants.

"He's used to telling us what he wants in ways other than oral language. But he can imitate words. This app can arouse his interests, and stimulate him to speak out. Now, we are using the pictures such as games and living. We haven't used the pictures to show his feelings, because he still doesn't know the link between the pictures and emotions," Wang Yuxiang said.

This app was created by Wei Liping, who has been studying genetic mutations linked to autism and working with autistic children and family. She said the existing alternative communication devices are in English and expensive, so some parents asked her if she could develop a similar tool for their children. She started to do this three years ago and has made progress year by year.

"We have found a vast majority of them can be trained to use Yuudee to express their basic needs. Parents and teachers reported that children are visibly happier, and also some of them actually begin to imitate the voice from Yuudee," Professor Wei Liping with Peking University said.

Wei said she received collaborative support from other institutes, training centers, technical engineers as well as the United Nations Chilren’s Fund, for the development of this app. This collaboration has helped make it available for free to the general public.

This app has been available on the Apple Appstore since 2014, and Android and international versions were launched last month. Wei and her team are still improving the app based on user testing results, and will scale up its use in the coming months.

Wei said the app is not asking children to interact with the device, but interact with other people through the device. While the app aims to help children with their communication skills, these children need more help in different fields. She has seen a lot of improvement in the attitude and approach towards autism in China but says more work needs to be done. Experts say more research, doctor training, specialized centers, and schools actively helping these children with special needs are needed.