In this age of 3D printing, self-driving cars, and social networks people are increasingly empowered and interconnected by the technologies that abound in our day-to-day lives. However, the needs of a growing segment of people in Canada are largely being ignored by the tech industry according to Sheridan students Shauna Jones and Keisha Alcott. Alongside their peers Michael Macdonald and Paul Pham in Sheridan’s Computer Systems Technology program they have developed Motify, a virtual platform that aims to assist people on the autism spectrum in developing skills that will help them lead more social, productive and fulfilling lives.
The practical need for autism-focused tools in the software development field inspired Jones’ idea for Motify. She cites that of the 400,000 apps available in the Android Marketplace in 2015, zero were related to aiding people with autism. Equally as compelling a reason to embark on this capstone project was Jones’ first-hand experience with her brother, who faces the challenges relating to autism on a daily basis. “We take things for granted,” she says. “Most people don’t need to be concerned about class size, sensory triggers and every social situation we encounter. It can be very overwhelming for those that do.”
The Motify equation is “Motivate + Simplify = Motify” and the aim is to consolidate tools for essential skills development for people with autism with an easy-to-navigate platform. When a user logs on they see a customized dashboard with modules based on their evaluated learning needs. For example: an elementary student may be prompted to visit the “Math Corner” or the interactive “Learning Forum” for help with homework tasks, while an adult entering the workforce would see options for interview preparation and career tools. All platforms integrate with and are supported by a social hub, games centre, and calendar tool.
Not only did the Sheridan team design each module from scratch, but ensured that their working prototype was strongly informed by research relating to the needs of people on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, the Motify experience is highly-tailored for each individual. “Each task has significance based on the user’s cognitive and adaptive skills, and we use an algorithm that caters the modules accordingly,” explains Alcott. “It’s an experience-based system so the results of each activity feed into an evaluation of progress that users can access.” Given that only fifty percent of working-aged people on the spectrum hold full-time jobs, the interview preparation tool was of high-priority for development. The resulting module implements vocal and facial analysis through a web-cam function, which allows users to perform mock interviews that are analyzed and evaluated in real-time, providing feedback to foster the development of these important skills.
Another important tool is the “Optaplanner,” a feature that can be used to schedule interviews and other activities. “A common challenge for many people on the autism spectrum is organization and anxiety around balancing time,” says Jones. “We developed a way for users to never be uncertain about what’s to come in their day.” By simply stating into the microphone, “Dentist appointment in two weeks,” the planner will refine and record the date and details in the user’s calendar for future reference.
Skill development through game-play is also a large component of the platform. “Individuals on the spectrum often have difficulty with change,” explains Alcott. “Games are a fantastic way to subtly ask users to practice adapting to new elements in a familiar way.” Using the Unity game engine, team members developed a variety of games that expose users to changing environments while not revealing rules or objectives – the user needs to play by trial and error and change behaviours to succeed.
While the modular components that make up Motify are in themselves distinct accomplishments, their culmination and interaction is the true success because it engages users who would otherwise be reluctant to take this self-support approach. Furthermore, the platform is web-accessible and supplies links to a variety of external resources based on the user’s profile and location. Lastly, Motify provides users with options for sharing and connecting with other users via a social application, and the team has plans to incorporate a university/college finder that would allow users to narrow down fields of study with criteria such as class size and existing autism supports.
“I have to commend my team,” says Jones, “I set them up with a nearly impossible task and [in four months] we’ve managed to develop something that is meaningful and has the potential to change people’s lives.” To help realize this true potential Jones has set up partnerships with Sheridan’s FACE IT group for students with autism, York University’s Clinical Psychology team, and Autism Speaks Canada. Commercialization of the product is also on the horizon, but Jones is taking this prospect in stride: “Wherever we go from here with Motify, the most important thing is that we’ve brought attention to the needs of people with autism.” By providing tools that are accessible and purposefully-directed at developing the essential skills of life, Motify is a step toward making sure no one is marginalized or outright isolated by our fast-paced and interconnected society.