The list of apps for iPad/iPhone/iPod touch includes over 500 of them. Nearly one-fifth are alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) apps, but still there is room for new and really different apps, such as AutisMate.
In short, AutisMate combines AAC functionality with visual scheduling and video modeling. As I always end up putting the apps in a category, I have included AutisMate in the AAC category, but it really goes far beyond being a pure tool of communication and offers many learning functions.
iPad settings allow you, from outside AutisMate, decide whether to use the app in edit mode or not. Starting with the no edit mode (ie end user mode), when you start the app you can see a set of six images corresponding to scenes linked to a house (basically the rooms). As I will explain later, the idea is to change those scenes by your own images.
If you touch the bath, you will see its magnified image and two buttons superimposed.
Tapping the green button, which is over the bath, you will hear an audio clip (‘I want to take a bath’).
That is, AutisMate uses a communication paradigm based primarily on selecting specific scenes that had previously been assigned buttons. By touching the buttons you hear audio clips associated with them.
If you touch the yellow star, a window will appear showing two images (pictograms in this case) for two actions than can be done there: brushing your teeth and washing your face. Each of these pictograms could have its own associated audio clip.
But if we want to teach how to do a task, you can associate a video to one of these images. For example, in the case of brushing teeth, you will see a video explaining this daily habit and showing how to do it.
We left the bathroom and return to the main screen. The map icon on the top shows a drop list of locations (each one with its own set of scenes), which initially contains only the home and the school.
If you choose the school and within that the scene about how go to school, you will see another rectangular button. By tapping it you will get access a sequence of pictures or videos that explain, in this case, how to go to the school every day.
AutisMate also allows the user to communicate with pictograms or pictures. To do it, within a particular scene, you will see various image categories on the bottom. Just touch one for us to display the collection of pictograms and/or images contained therein. By touching each of them you can hear the associated audio clip (if you have recorded it).
Thus, to summarize, AutisMate allows you to work with categories of pictures/pictograms as many other AAC apps but is more focused on choosing scenes and tapping buttons associated with specific points in those scenes. Each button can play an audio clip (communication), a video clip (communication/video modeling) or a sequence of images and/or videos (sequences/visual scheduling). A whole mix of options that, properly configured, can provide many potential ways of using AutisMate as a tool for communication and as a learning platform for people with special needs.
Go back to the settings of the iPad and select the edit mode. This mode lets you create all the content that the user will see later.
First, you can touch the map icon to add new locations by entering their name. Here I think it would be better to be able to assign a picture to each location, but for now you can only enter a text.
If you have also enabled the GPS in the AutisMate settings, you will have the option of marking the GPS position of the location. Then, when you start AutisMate, the closest location to the current GPS position will appear. This option only works when the application is really started, not when you recover it from the background pool of apps. This way seems the most logical, but it limits a bit the feature.
Once within a location, you can add scenes. In a house, they could be rooms, for example, but you can add anything. Each location can have many scenes, but if there are more than six you have to scroll to see all of them them. Each scene can have a name and a photo. Obviously, one would start by modifying the existing locations (home and school) to replace the images by others showing the real user environment.
Within a scene, you can add buttons of various colors, which can be round or star-shaped, as well as visual schedules rectangles and link rectangles.
For buttons, you can assign one or more audio phrases based on writing a text to be reproduced using synthesized speech (only in English) or better by recording an audio clip with the iPad itself. Recording more than one sentence allows you to work aspects of generalization of language, as AutisMate will randomly play one of the possible audio clips whenever the user touches the button.
But we can also assign a video clip or just use the button to change from one scene to another by defining which scene we want to go when tapping the button (and putting it in an area where there is a door, for example). This allows you to potentially build a world of locations each with several scenes and interconnect all of them, and go from house to the street and then to school, etc., in a continuous manner.
Finally, a button can also be associated with a popup that displays one or more images. You can assign to each image its own synthesized/recorded audio clip, video clip or direct link to another scene. This allows, for example, to have a button assigned to the fridge that shows a list of everything that you can say related to the fridge instead of having ten buttons on the fridge.
In the case of visual schedule buttons, to define then a popup appears allowing you to create each step, which may contain a photo/pictogram or a video clip as well as a text and a recorded audio clip. Again, you get maximum flexibility and power, although with some limitations. Both the videos and photos should be already available on the iPad, as AutisMate cannot record them from inside the app.
As expected, you can also edit the categories shown in the bottom of the screen. There are six, but again an horizontal scroll allows you to see much more. For each, one you can add lots of pictures or pictograms and, again, assign audio clips (one or more) to them.
For pictograms, AusitMate displays a list of 12,000 that are already included. You can find them by scrolling through the list, although it makes more sense to look for them using the included text search option.
As we have seen, the configuration possibilities of AutisMate are enormous, but they imply that defining an entire environment a person can be a long task. To share all this effort, you can export and import complete scenes by email and by exporting them via iTunes.
Finally, AutisMate has an overprinted context-sensitive help on all screens in the edit mode which is more than enough to learn how to use the app. Anyway, AutisMate is in itself quite intuitive and self-guided.
As a pure AAC tool based on categories of images, AutisMate is based on choosing pictures or pictograms classified into categories, which fits with a potential group of users who communicate with individual images (not with phrases created by selecting some images). There are thousands of pictograms included, which in itself is already a good value, but they have not associated audio or text.
But if we consider AutisMate as an AAC based on scenes, this app is very flexible and powerful. And if we consider it in its entirety, AutisMate is an app that can be used in many contexts as a platform for communication and for learning habits, social stories, tasks, etc.
Of course, in any case AutisMate is a tool that requires a previous major customization to add images, record audio clips and videos, create categories or assign pictograms to them. With a highly visual menus and options it is an app suitable for people who does not speak English, although the online help, the synthesized voice and the search of pictograms are based on the English language.
AutisMate is a young app that still requires that some details to be polish and have some limitations. But, overall, AutisMate is already a professional tool that provides a lot of innovative features that deserve to be seen.