Experimental study uses computer programme based on SGI libraries to teach autistic children figurative thinking skills

Mountain View 02 October 2003The cereal-filled spoon as a toy airplane and the clenched hand as a puppet face may make sense to most young kids, but children with autism often are unable to make the imaginative leaps of logic required to transform the ordinary into something playful. Now researchers at the University of Valencia's Robotics Institute, using OpenGL Performer software from SGI, have developed a breakthrough computer programme specifically designed to assist children with autism in acquiring figurative thinking skills.


Currently unavailable to the general public, the programme is set to be distributed in Spanish to more than fifty autism organisations throughout Spain this December and possibly worldwide in English one year later. To launch this programme, Silicon Graphics has granted University of Valencia Robotics Institute 150 OpenGL Performer licenses based on Windows 98, Windows NT and Windows XP operating systems. OpenGL Performer is a powerful Application Programming Interface (API) to create visual simulations in real time and other high performance 3D applications. This software provides sophisticated visual effects, interactive entertainment and other numerous unique capabilities in real time.

"The Autism and Learning Disabilities Group of the Robotics Institute has developed a virtual supermarket of exercises for working on imagination", explained Gerardo Herrera Gutierrez, lead researcher on the project. "Many autistic children have trouble understanding symbolism, which means they have trouble imagining and playing. Graphical computer programmes can be useful devices for showing the imaginary transformation of objects that children with autism find difficult to understand."

"In early testing, first, informal results suggest that the programme we've developed truly helps some children begin to grasp the idea of symbolism. The profile of the children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder for whom this technology can be of great benefit is the child who has an imagination-related impairment and, at the same time, has a good potential for learning with no general learning difficulties", Gerardo Herrera Gutierrez continued.

The programme, deceptively simple, features such images as a pair of black jeans representing a road, with seams serving as lane dividers, and a watermelon doubling as a giant punch bowl whose contents can be drunk through an imaginary straw. "The programme is built on OpenGL Performer because, over the years, researchers at the institute have found it to be an ideal tool for creating real-time visual simulation and other 3D graphics applications", stated Gerardo Herrera Gutierrez.

"It is ideal for this autism project because it works not only with the institute's significant IRIX infrastructure but also across a wide spectrum of other operating systems, which is crucial for a programme of this kind that we hope to distribute worldwide over the next two years."

OpenGL Performer is the foundation of a powerful suite of graphics tools and features for the IRIX, Linux and Windows NT, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 operating systems. "It is gratifying to know that an SGI product is playing such a crucial role in this vital initiative", stated says Bill Bartling, director, global life and chemical sciences solutions, SGI. "This is yet one more example of the many ways that SGI technologies assist researchers around the world in tackling important scientific and technical breakthroughs."

Autism is a complex brain disorder that often inhibits a person's ability to communicate, respond to surroundings, or form relationships with others. First identified more than 50 years ago, it is typically diagnosed by the age of two or three. It affects people of all racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. While some people with autism are mildly affected, most people with the condition will require lifelong supervision and care and have significant language impairments.

Development of the University of Valencia programme and its distribution within Spain is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology, the Spanish Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Regional Government of Valencia. Funding for development and worldwide distribution of an English-language version in 2004 is yet to be secured.

Leslie Versweyveld

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