News / Ottawa

New app helps autistic kids decode facial expressions

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A smile might be a simple way to communicate, but it can be confusing to a child with autism or Asperger Syndrome.

Zeely Adventures is a new app geared to help kids with similar learning disabilities interpret facial expressions. Games with colourful characters teach youth under 10 how to decode frowns and tears and are more fun than therapy, says Natasha D’Souza, the app’s developer.

“For whatever reason, these individuals have challenges interpreting facial emotions, which results in them being socially awkward,” she says. “Research also says that you can teach them emotions, feelings and social skills and once they’ve mastered them, they have these skills for life.”

D’Souza, who has a child with a learning disability, said she came up with the app when she was a graduate student at Carleton University’s Technology Innovation Management Program. On top of her studies and consulting job, she was helping her recently diagnosed child through therapy sessions and by navigating the school system.

She started reading up on learning disabilities and decided to focus her graduate thesis in that field. She secured support from the Ontario Brain Institute for Zeely Adventures and the app launched last month.

Dr. Philippe Adams, an Ottawa psychologist, says he has yet to try Zeely Adventures, but that there have been similar programs launched elsewhere with scientific backing.

“I think the approach, itself, definitely has some merit,” he says. “Whether it can work for children here and now in that specific package, well I think that probably depends on the fit between the package and the child.”

D’Souza said she plans to create other apps geared towards older youth.

Zeely Adventures is available at and on iTunes for $19.99.

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