News / Vancouver

University of Victoria professor builds app to help kids with autism

Jim Tanaka has developed an app with the help of University of Victoria students to help kids with autism recognize faces and understand facial expressions.

A University of Victoria professor has built an iPad app to help children with autism spectrum disorder recognize faces and read facial expressions.

Flickr: Chirantan Patnaik

A University of Victoria professor has built an iPad app to help children with autism spectrum disorder recognize faces and read facial expressions.

A University of Victoria professor has designed an iPad app that can help kids with autism learn how to recognize faces and read facial expressions.

The app, called Let’s Face It! Scrapbook, allows users to take photos of their family and friends, label them and then play games to help remember their names and faces.

“We wanted to find a way to help kids recognizes faces in their everyday lives,” said Jim Tanaka, a psychology professor at UVic who helped design the app. “We thought the best way to do this is to use the iPad camera to collect these pictures. The user builds his or her own content and then we put it into games.”

Jim Tanaka, psychology professor at the University of Victoria, designed an app to help kids with autism.

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Jim Tanaka, psychology professor at the University of Victoria, designed an app to help kids with autism.

Tanaka, who built the app with the help of students at UVic over the past seven years, said the platform encourages users to become comfortable with looking at faces in a non-threatening setting.

He said children with autism spectrum disorder often avoid looking at someone’s face, and when they do, tend to focus on the mouth region, rather than the eyes.

“That makes complete sense because if you’re threatened by social engagement, you don’t want to look at somebody in the eyes,” he said. “This is something we all do quite naturally but, of course, the eyes are so important for understanding someone’s identity.”

While the app was developed with the goal of helping individuals with autism, Tanaka said it can also be used by anyone who has difficulty remembering faces.

Both Tanaka and his wife, who is also a teacher, have successfully used the app to help remember the names of students in their classes.

But the original inspiration came from an idea to help his father remember the names of his children, he said. 

“As kids get older, they change, and it’s difficult for elderly people to keep track,” he said.

Already, the app has been used at the Mosaic Learning Society in Victoria, which offers educational support to children with autism, and has received positive feedback so far, said Tanaka.

Let’s Face It! Scrapbook is available for free in the iTunes store and requires an iPad 2.