‘Toy Story’ in­spired: How a Gal­way fam­ily are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

An an­i­mated lan­guage learn­ing pro­gramme de­vised by fam­ily at NU I Gal way cam­pus com­pany is as­sist­ing chil­dren with autism

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Autism - Lorna Sig­gins

Sher­iff Woody Pride and the mem­bers of his Roundup gang have a lot to an­swer for among the mil­lions of par­ents who can no longer dis­creetly re­home “out­grown” child­hood toys.

How­ever, when Pixar film an­i­ma­tors and writ­ers cre­ated the Toy Story char­ac­ters more than 20 years ago, they could never have re­alised their wider po­ten­tial for un­lock­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.

Gal­way twins Conor and Eoin Dodd (19) grew up with and fell in love with many of the pro­duc­tions in the Dis­ney Pixar sta­ble. As the first-ever com­puter an­i­mated fea­ture-length pic­ture de­vised by Pixar, Toy

Story part one was re­leased just two years be­fore they were born.

The twins were di­ag­nosed with autism, with Conor be­ing the most se­verely non-verbal and un­able to com­mu­ni­cate. His par­tic­u­larly se­vere form of autism in­cluded deaf­ness, cog­ni­tive deficits, pro­found lan­guage dis­or­der and global dys­praxia.

Par­ents Enda and Va­lerie Dodd re­mem­ber be­ing told, shortly after di­ag­no­sis, that their sons would never learn a lan­guage, and that one day they would have to “drop them to an in­sti­tu­tion and drive away”. For­tu­nately, their fa­ther’s job with Medtronic in Gal­way al­lowed for a trans­fer to the US, where the cou­ple hoped to find some­thing that would give them hope.

Frus­tra­tions

The boys were en­rolled in speech and lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion, while their par­ents ded­i­cated them­selves to sup­port­ing them, deal­ing with their frus­tra­tions, nur­tur­ing their strengths and observing their ev­ery in­tel­li­gent move.

“The lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion would re­sult in many ex­plo­sive out­bursts, but I be­gan to re­alise that while the child is still ex­plod­ing you still have a chance,”their fa­ther re­calls.

The win­dow of op­por­tu­nity was the boys’ re­sponse to an­i­mated films. Eoin might not be able to ask for a bis­cuit, but he could quote a sub­stan­tial chunk of text from a Dis­ney char­ac­ter.

While Va­lerie fo­cused on phys­i­cal out­lets for chan­nelling en­ergy through sports like ten­nis and run­ning, Enda be­gan to draw on his own in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy skills and con­tacts. When watch­ing an­i­mated films, their fa­ther would freeze-frame seg­ments and match lan­guage, by la­belling con­cepts on screen with text.

Liv­ing as they were then in Sil­i­con Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, the fam­ily were sur­rounded by film stu­dios. Projects “clos­ing out” would sell their sys­tems and soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tions. The Dodds ap­proached Dis­ney/Pixar and Adobe, and be­gan to build a re­search team. At this point, Enda had pulled back from his ca­reer and the cou­ple were liv­ing on some stock and fund­ing from friends.

The An­i­mated Lan­guage Learn­ing (ALL) soft­ware that they de­vised builds on the vis­ual learn­ing skills which chil­dren with autism tends to have. It uses clips from the films and rep­e­ti­tion to re­in­force the con­cepts and emo­tions of char­ac­ters, thereby help­ing them to learn to speak.

The twins were in their mid-teens when the cou­ple de­cided to re­turn home, armed with the ALL project. They en­rolled the boys in sec­ondary schools, but the in­abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate proved frus­trat­ing for Conor – who was slowly but surely with­draw­ing.

One evening, Enda was work­ing on the soft­ware when “Conor just lit­er­ally grabbed the key­board and moved in”. To his dis­be­lief, he watched as his son con­tin­ued pro­gram­ming the lan­guage con­cepts he had been en­gaged with.

“Conor didn’t go back to school after that, and he is now part of the re­search team,” Enda says, speak­ing at NUI Gal­way’s (NUIG) Busi­ness In­no­va­tion Cen­tre as his son types away on the key­board.

Al­most overnight, the cou­ple’s more se­verely autis­tic son moved from a world of un­re­spon­sive­ness, hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion, clinics and iso­la­tion to one of life on cam­pus, while run­ning with the Gal­way City Har­ri­ers, sail­ing and play­ing ten­nis.

His brother, Eoin, will be join­ing the team after he fin­ishes the Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate. Their par­ents en­vis­age that Conor will be pro­vid­ing the soft­ware engi­neer­ing skills, while his com­mu­nica­tive and ex­tro­vert brother will work in the school class­room.

The NUIG cam­pus ini­tia­tive has en­listed 300 fam­i­lies – some 120 of them Ir­ish-based – for the autism speech and lan­guage pro­gramme. A pi­lot project is also run­ning in two Co Gal­way pri­mary schools – St Pat’s in Tuam and Kil­coona.

Among the Gal­way par­tic­i­pants is Rian Reynolds (10), who was di­ag­nosed with autism at four-and-a-half. “He spends about 25 min­utes a day on Toy Story, and he is learn­ing words,” his mother, Sharon, says. “Some­times we have to ne­go­ti­ate with him, but once he is in front of the screen he tends to be very en­gaged.”

Me­chan­i­cal

Ian Con­nell’s four-year-old son, Conor, was di­ag­nosed with autism in Fe­bru­ary, 2016, and he is also a par­tic­i­pant in the ALL project.“Conor had picked up a cou­ple of words, but tended to echo them rather than re­ally know­ing what they meant,” his dad re­calls. “The type of ac­tiv­i­ties we were given to work with were very me­chan­i­cal, and couldn’t re­tain his con­cen­tra­tion or in­ter­est.

“We had even bought him his own lit­tle ta­ble and chair to en­cour­age him to sit down with us, but then Mickey Mouse would come on the tele­vi­sion and he’d re­peat “it’s a beau­ti­ful day” word per­fectly,” he says.

“We were won­der­ing how we could pos­si­bly build on that when we read about the re­search project that the Dodds were in­volved in, and con­tacted them,” Ian Con­nell says. “I brought Conor to meet Enda, and within 10 min­utes he was able to ex­plain his be­hav­iour to me in a way I had never quite un­der­stood be­fore now.

“I have to say that I find the Dodds to be an in­spi­ra­tion,” Con­nell says. “Conor is us­ing a mouse, typ­ing words and re­peat­ing them, and he is a lot more con­tent and calm and the ben­e­fits are spilling over into other as­pects of his life,” he says.

“I think that hav­ing this sort of ac­cess, talk­ing to Enda, is so re­ward­ing, as there is noth­ing quite like shar­ing your ex­pe­ri­ence with other par­ents who have been through this,” he says.

Va­lerie Dodd stresses that they are not promis­ing mir­a­cles, as there is “no one magic bul­let”.

“The fact that this pro­gramme can be used at home means it is not in­tim­i­dat­ing,” she says. “And once the child has lan­guage, par­ent­ing can start,” her hus­band agrees.

NUIG school of ed­u­ca­tion lec­turer Dr Pa­trick Far­ren has de­scribed the Dodds’ achieve­ment as “amaz­ing”, and cred­its them with “cre­at­ing cut­ting-edge, in­ter­ac­tive plat­forms that sup­port lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion, (meta)cog­ni­tive and emo­tional devel­op­ment”.

NUIG Busi­ness In­no­va­tion Cen­tre devel­op­ment man­ager Fiona Neary con­curs, and says that the “sheer deter­mi­na­tion of the Dodd fam­ily will en­sure ALL is around for a long time to come, help­ing fam­i­lies all over the globe”.

And, in Sher­iff Woody Pride’s words, par­tic­i­pants can “reach fo r the sky”.

He spends about 25 min­utes a day on ‘Toy Story’, and he is learn­ing words

Gal­way twins Eoin and Conor Dodd with their par­ents, Enda and Va­lerie at NUI Gal­way.

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