In what could be a first-of-its-kind internationally, a team of researchers led by a Qatari professor is developing a bilingual online platform to provide remote learning access for children with autism, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, Gulf Times has learnt.
“We are working to develop technologies within three months to help children with autism in their learning process," disclosed, Dr Dena Ahmed S al-Thani, the project lead and assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU).
"It is an online education platform and it is important now as children are forced to stay home due to Covid-19 and learn online. Such a technology will help children with autism learn, understand and engage better,” she explained.
The project 'Mixed-Reality Interactive Educational Platform to Support Remote Learning for Children with Autism' by Dr Dena and her team was recently awarded a grant under the Rapid Response Call (RRC) by Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), a Qatar Foundation entity to complete the project in three months’ time. RRC enables researchers to develop rapid solutions to mitigate the impact that Covid-19 on different sectors in Qatar.
Dr Dena said that children with autism used to have one-to-one access with their therapists but it is not possible in the present situation as there are no physical classes.
“Now we are developing technologies to help them access education remotely using virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality. We use specific technology that we have developed at College of Science and Engineering. This is the continuation of what we have been engaged in. We have been working on such technologies for the past four years and have published various research papers,” explained Dr Dena.
“Our idea is to develop a highly functional prototype and we have already started the project. We have the capacity to complete the prototype by the end of three months and we have the team ready and working on it,” she continued.
The academic also revealed that the idea is to take it internationally. “It will be an application both in Arabic and English. We want to take it beyond Qatar and the region. No such technology is available now internationally and we see the gap and want to make use of the potential for such a technology in the market,” pointed out the official.
The research grant under RRC will contribute to the development of this platform on a fast-track basis, so it can be deployed on an urgent basis in schools and other centres that offer educational services for autistic children.
“We hope this can be used as the schools resume for the next academic session. This is an e-platform for students, teachers and the parents. We will be using innovative ideas such as 3D objects to engage students. A recent study has revealed that one out of 86 children in Qatar suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder and this tool would be highly useful for all the educational institutes dealing with children with autism. Shafallah Centre alone has over 800 such students,” noted the professor.
Dr Dena also said that her team is looking into ways of detecting the attention of an autism child. “The idea is to detect the attention of the child objectively rather than subjectively. It is hard for someone to know if a child with autism is giving attention. Only trained people can understand this as children with autism do not look at people directly. We are making use of eye tracking and facial expression using a web cam to assess a child. This project has been in the use for the past three years and we have received a provisional patent for the use of the technology from the US,” she concluded.
Dr Dena along and her team of faculty members, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers including Dr Kamaran Khawaja, Dr Marwa Qaraqe and Bilikis Banire and others, work closely with end users. They are supported in this project by Mada Assistive Technology Centre and Shafallah Centre.