Deborah Fels, professor at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, and the director of the Inclusive Media and Design Centre, responsible for helping create the WebMoti. (Courtesy IMDC)

School has never been easy for students with autism.

The bright lights, loud school bell, yelling children and echoing hallways can really harm someone with autism because of their sensory challenges.

A lot of students who are struggling with autism have difficulty with reading or speech, since verbal expression and understanding are extremely challenging. They also experience difficulties with fine and gross motor skills.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects how the individual communicates and interacts with people and the world around them.

According to Autism Ontario, ASD is a lifelong neurological disorder. ASD can affect behaviour, social interactions, and one’s ability to communicate verbally.

Lisa Jo Rudy, autism advocate and author says that school can be more challenging for students with autism than any other setting.

The reality is that elementary schools are not equipped to help students with disabilities, such as autism. The environment can be difficult.

But Ryerson has created a solution.

Deborah Fels, Ryerson professor and lead director of Ryerson’s Inclusive Media and Design Centre (IMDC) has helped create WebMoti.

WebMoti is a multimedia and multi-sensory system. The WebMoti is a combination of two of Fels’ existing technologies, the Webchair and Emoti-chair.

First, we developed a technology created for people who are hard of hearing called the Emoti-chair. The chair used vibrations to indicate audio-tactical display, helping people to ‘feel’ music and sound through vibrations,” Fels explained.

The Webchair is another one of Fels’ innovative developments. It helps students who must stay home because of physical illness, or psychological issues, and allows them to attend school virtually through a webcam that interacts with peers.

“Webchair was being used for kids in general, but kids with autism have particularly benefited (from it) with the Emoti-chair,” said Fels. “We tested it and discussed it with some experts in autism and kids and agreed that this would be a good combination to look at. Are kids with autism supported better than they are supported now in school? And we are in the process of that.”

Ryerson’s IMDC, Tactical Audio Display Inc. and Webchair have committed to improving how children with autism participate in class with the help of WebMoti.

“We realized that kids with autism are particularly unable to access school and music through both systems, so we thought to combine them and look at kids with autism going to school and came up with WebMoti,” said Fels.

With the help of funding by the Advancing Education Program, administered by the Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE), WebMoti became a possibility in 2016.

How does it work?

Students with autism struggle with fine sensory functions, social communication and nonverbal communication.

WebMoti is in its development and testing stage with a prototype in hopes of being able to test the technology with actual students struggling with autism.

Livius Grosu and Garo Nazarian are two of the developers for the WebMoti at the IMDC and are computer science students at Ryerson.

“Last semester we worked with a student from Ryerson,” said Nazarian. “The student would be at home. We would go to their house and set up the computer with an Xbox controller and would go to the classroom and set up the robot, which was in the giant lecture hall in the engineering building.”

The student received tactile feedback through vibrations when the teacher was speaking. The vibrations transfer through speakers and are outputted through two pillows.

“We changed the output system to pillows, so the student can get comfortable with it and can move the pillows into any position,” said Grosu.

The child also has control of the robot and the camera. The camera and robot can move around in order for the student to have the sense of still being in a classroom.

Grosu said the developers are in the works of creating a hand function so that the child can actually make the robot raise its hand when asking a question.

Since the start of the project, Ryerson has tested it with two students and Fels is excited to announce a new Ryerson student with autism will be joining them who can give perspective feedback.

The prototype is currently being tested with a student with autism from the Toronto District School Board who is in Grade 5.

Fels explained the goal is to get the technology into all Ontario elementary schools. But both developers jokingly said there is always something to fix and they have no idea when they will reach the final stage.

“It has been through a lot of iterations,” said Grosu. “Even the picture right now is extremely different from how the first prototype looked.”

Nazarian explains that the developers plan to change the screen and the frame because the whole robot itself is too heavy. As well, it will have a camera that will be able to tilt.

In Ontario, one in 66 children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, according to the ministry of children and youth services.
A spectrum disorder means that people with ASD can experience varying degrees of challenges depending on where they fall.

Autism has spiked in recent years. In 2003, it affected one in 190 children. Twelve years later, the number had grown to one in 66 children, according to the annual report by Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.

According to Autism Ontario, ASD doesn’t just disappear once the child reaches adulthood. The statistics point to the  Ontario system needing to be more responsive to the needs of the children who are transitioning into the adult world.  

After graduating high school, Autism Ontario reports that there is little support for youth to access post-secondary education or employment opportunities.

But WebMoti could change that.

The technology was created for students in elementary schools, however the WebMoti could be used in many other settings as well.

Early intervention for children with ASD is critical, reports Autism Ontario, but there must also be more attention given to needs of older youth with ASD.

“In five years I hope to see this technology expand and not just help those from our target audience but reach a larger audience,” Fels said. “But essentially, the idea is, kids who can’t be in the classroom for whatever reason, still need to find a way to succeed.”

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