Apps for autism: Silken Laumann campaigns for new technology

Victoria-based Olympic rowing legend Silken Laumann knows firsthand the role technology can play in the lives of children with autism.

App helps children with autism make eye contact, recognize facial expressions

Silken Laumann with her stepdaughter Kilee. (Silken Laumann)

Victoria-based Olympic rowing legend Silken Laumann knows firsthand the role technology can play in the lives of children with autism and is bringing attention to an app that helps build communication skills.

Laumann is part of a campaign for Look At Me, an app that helps children living with autism to improve eye contact and interpret facial expressions.

Her stepdaughter, Kilee, 21, has autism and struggles to communicate. Her family uses technology, including tablets and apps, to help overcome some of these challenges, Laumann told CBC guest host of On The Coast Gloria Macarenko.

"One of the things that is really hard for our daughter, and I think it's true for a lot of children with autism, is those social connections," Laumann said. "Technology has actually played a pretty big role in her life for that."

'She wants to connect'

Laumann said the family has been told Kilee has the mental capacity of a two-year-old, but she loves to engage with others by sharing toys or giving hugs and smiles.

"She wants to connect with others, she wants to feel useful and valued," Laumann said.

One of the tasks she struggles with though, Laumann said, is making eye contact and reading social cues.  

"Eye contact is a really important way we show that we are listening and that we care about one another," she said. "Basically, the Look At Me app teaches kids with autism how to make eye contact."

Technology as a tool

The app was developed with a team of psychologists. The users look at the camera and it tracks their eye movement, rewarding them with a point system as well as visual and sound effects when they maintain eye contact with the face on the screen.

"It's very translatable," Laumann said. "We do it of course in real life every time Kilee walks in the door, we're like 'Hey Kilee, how was your day?' If she doesn't look at us we say 'Hey Kilee, look at us in the eye.'"

Laumann said technology has a bad reputation for disconnecting people but, when it's used as a tool, can actually help create connections.

"It's a story I've heard over and over again with families who have children who have autism about the power of those phones and the tablets in helping kids to connect," she said.

'Just another kid'

When Kilee is interacting with her three other siblings, Laumann said, it's clear technology is helping build a bridge between them.  

"When they connect through their phones or their tablets or computers and they are showing each other things, for that time she's with them, she's just another kid," Laumann said.

The 2017 Look at Me Project, a partnership with Samsung Canada and Autism Speaks Canada, is providing 500 Samsung tablets, pre-loaded with the app, to organizations and families with children living with autism.

With files from On The Coast.