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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 18 April, 2014

Irish firm gives autistic children the gift of language using Disney and Pixar films

The firm, run by Irish engineer Enda Dodd, is developing technology that links language to concepts played out by familiar characters in films like Toy Story.

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A COMPANY BASED in Ireland is developing technology that uses Disney and Pixar films to help educate children with autism or language disorders.

It was announced earlier this week that the company, Animated Language Learning which is run by Irishman Enda Dodd,  will create 100 jobs in Ireland.

While this is obviously positive news for the Irish economy, Dodd explained to TheJournal.ie that this technology could hugely improve the lives of children with learning difficulties and their ability to communicate with the world around them.

“People who are diagnosed as autistic or with language disorders are highly intelligent individuals – they can see the structure of things and organise visual thought and idea much like an architect or a surgeon,” he said. “Their problem is that they lack language so they can’t communicate this.”

Dodd was inspired to look into this kind of technology by his own two sons, Eoin and Conor, who are both autistic.

“When I looked at my own two children at four and five-years-old it looked like they could need institutionalisation,” Dodds said. “They were so severe that we had to go to California to find a solution.”

After Dodd and his family moved from Galway to California, he worked with a number of researchers on trials to test this type of language learning technology with his own children taking part in the first case study.

“We were lucky, I was an engineer so I was able to transfer that and when we’re designing something for your own children it really does give you an insight,” he explained. “It’s all about taking a child’s natural strength and educating them based on those strengths.”

Animated Language Learning

The new technology on trial uses Disney and Pixar movies that are remixed to help children associate visualisations with language.

“What we do is we break the movies into short segments of 40 or 50 seconds with some event or concept,” Dodd explained. “In Toy Story, it could be as simple as Andy playing with his toys or as complex as Woody pushing Buzz out the window and what happens after that. Children understand almost intuitively what has happened.”

We then connect text to those films so children learn how to label emotions, actions, names of characters. These children who range in age from three to 16 are basically building literacy around very complex concepts. As they build the literacy and reading and writing, speech attaches to that.

The types of films chosen are deliberate as Dodd said that children “feel comfortable and safe” with the characters created by Disney and Pixar.

“They just have wonderful, socioemotional stories which really captivate children,” he said. “They use concepts and language which is so useful in the child’s daily life and the underlying stories are wonderful for presenting concepts you want children to understand and put language to.”

The technology runs online so parents can use it with the children in the home and make it part of their normal routine. “I knew it had to be something that could be used easily with no travel involved and at no great expense,” Dodd said.

“We’ve had a number of families using it now where this is the start of parents being able to communicate with their children at all,” he added.

Dodd said his own two boys, both aged 16 are now “doing brilliantly”. One is literate at and above his years and the other is now reading and writing at a 12-year-old’s level and speaking in sentences.

“We see the path forward and we know what we need to be doing with them to provide them with what they need,” he said.

Families are being added to the pilot daily and the company sets up an interview to discuss a cases and determine if it is likely that a family will benefit from the study.  Anyone who is interested can contact Dodd through the Animated Language Learning website.

Read: Cuts in teaching support for special needs children “utterly unacceptable”>
Read: Reilly criticised and questioned over allocation of autism funding>

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