x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dubai graduates design apps aid for special needs children

Two young graduates of the University of Wollongong have designed apps to help teach children at Al Noor Centre for Special Needs.

Shawn Frank, left, and Ronak Dave created a user friendly application for special needs children. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Shawn Frank, left, and Ronak Dave created a user friendly application for special needs children. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

DUBAI // Two graduates from the University of Wollongong have designed apps to help children with special needs learn vital skills, such as brushing their teeth or matching related items.

Ronak Dave, 23, and Shawn Frank, 22, developed the apps for Al Noor Training Centre for Special Needs in Dubai after Samsung donated 100 tablets to the centre and ran a competition for app developers.

"It was challenging because it's not the same as creating them for children without learning difficulties. For example, someone with Down syndrome would have an overwhelming sensory response so we had to take that into account so that we don't overwhelm them," Mr Frank said.

"They are also children who really need to be given more praise so instead of just having a 'well done' flash up on screen, the staff wanted us to make it feel even more impressive for the children when they completed a task, so we included things like clapping to really make them feel it had been a big achievement because even a small step is a huge deal for these children."

The duo developed Groomar to teach children essentials such as combing their hair, while Matchalon teaches how to match items such as shoes and socks.

"I was worried they wouldn't know how to use it but the matching game is really simple and they had fun using it," said Mr Frank, who was able to trial the app with some of the children at the centre. "It was the best part of the project."

An adult must assist the child with Groomar as he or she learns the grooming action through a cartoon character they choose on screen. "It is a little more complicated as it requires the children to take more actions in getting the characters to actually do the activity such as combing their hair," said Mr Frank.

From the experience of the trial and with the feedback the centre gave them, the pair were able to make extra modifications.

"Children with special needs need extra stimulation to keep them interested, so we added features like being able to change the backgrounds and personalise things so the children find it more fun and interactive," Mr Frank said.

The teachers at Al Noor will be able to adapt the app as the children's familiarity with it grows.

The app goes live soon and will only be available on Samsung, but the plan is to make it available in all formats. Under the company name MindHyve, the pair said their apps would not be marketed just for special needs children.

They are passionate about making use of their skills for social good.

While at university they created an app for another competition - the Imagine Cup, organised by Microsoft - based on a system used at a major Dubai hospital to warn about hearing problems.

They are also working on an app to encourage people to recycle, tying it into social media and encouraging younger people to think more about the environment.

Gulshan Kavarana has a 16-year-old daughter with severe special needs whom she schools at home. These apps are too difficult for her daughter, though she has seen them have success in other cases.

"For anyone with mild to moderate conditions like autism, it's working wonders," she said. "There are so many types of apps for different kinds of disabilities."

Usability, the interactive nature of apps and their visual nature make them a vital tool for children with learning difficulties, she said.

"The children are getting so much more vocal and verbal because of this," Mrs Kavarana said. "The iPad is not a luxury for these children any more but a necessity. It's giving them a voice.

"As well as voice-generated apps, they can type things they want to say easily and for the parents it's making their lives so much easier too."

mswan@thenational.ae