Why we all need access to meaning (by Victoria Yaneva)

Victoria Yaneva TEDEX

With the 21st Century known as the age of information, access to knowledge can change our lives in so many ways. Yet comprehension difficulties are a core characteristic of those on the autistic spectrum, making extracting meaning a distinct challenge. Victoria Yaneva outlines how technology can help bridge these differences in learning, by building upon the strengths of those with autism rather than focusing on weaknesses.

“The book ‘The Little Prince’ starts with the boy who draws his drawing number one, which looks like this…

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…he then goes to the grown-ups and asks them “Are you frightened?”. “Frightened?”, they replied, “Why would I be frightened by the picture of a hat?!”. Disappointed by this answer, he goes back and draws his drawing number two, explaining to the grown-ups that it is not a hat they are seeing but a boa constrictor digesting an elephant!

This is just the story of a brilliant book, but imagine for a second you live in a world where you see hats, while everyone else around you seems to be seeing boa constrictors digesting elephants! If you have imagined this, you have lived for a second in the world of autism.

Communication difficulties are a core characteristic of autism. Children with autism usually acquire language later in their lives compared to their typically developing peers, which results in language comprehension difficulties, and in reading comprehension difficulties. Now let me be clear, not every person on the autism spectrum experiences reading comprehension difficulties. There are people who have read each and every book there is to read, and are perfectly able to tell you what each part of the book means. However, in my experience working with people on the spectrum, I have seen the case of a boy who drops out of school at the age of sixteen because of his reading comprehension difficulties.

Figurative language, for example, is notoriously famous to be taken literally by people with autism. I have had the case of a person on the spectrum coming to me and showing me an email which starts like this…

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…then the person asks me “why would anyone be speaking of candles in an email that is not about candles at all?”, and more importantly, and with a slightly more worried voice, “what do I reply!”.

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Figurative language; irony; sarcasm; long words; unfamiliar words; long sentences; phrases that may have more than one meaning, are all very challenging for some people on the autism spectrum and, as trivial as they may seem, reading difficulties are actually one of the reasons for the lower educational achievements of people with autism; for the levels of early school drop-out among this population; for their lower employability prospects (with only 15% of adults with autism being currently employed full-time in the UK), and finally, reading comprehension difficulties have a devastating negative impact on the overall social inclusion of people with autism.

Fortunately, we live in the 21st century, where disability and accessibility are thought of in a different way. For example, if you don’t have a hand you are offered a bionic prosthetic. If you are not able to move, you are offered a smart wheelchair. If you are blind, you are offered a screen reader so you can still read, and still participate actively in society. So the question is, what can technology do to help people with autism overcome their reading difficulties and live happier and more fulfilling lives?

At the University of Wolverhampton we have been researching this question for many years, conducting a series of experiments involving participants with autism. And while technology is not yet mature enough to be able to take a text document, and adapt it fully automatically for the needs of people with autism, technology has the potential to enable humans to make their content and  their texts friendly for people with autism in a much more efficient way.

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Currently these documents, the so called ‘easy to read documents’, are required by law for information that is related to healthcare, changes in policies, voting guidance etc., but one problem for the creation of these is that the final say of whether the document is actually easy enough, or too patronising, or if it needs any form of further improvement, is actually based on a focus group of people with cognitive disabilities. Let’s face it, not everyone who wants to make their content autism friendly has access to a focus group of people with cognitive disabilities to receive their feedback. To address this we have developed a web application tool called AUTOR.

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At the moment AUTOR is able to tell you with 96% accuracy whether your text is easy or difficult for a person with autism…

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…with 86% accuracy whether your text is easy, medium or difficult for three different levels of autism severity…

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…and finally, at the level of sentences, with 81% accuracy whether particular sentences in the text are easy or difficult for a person with autism.

In the future, we are hoping to make AUTOR able to automatically convert the way text is presented, because we found that the best way to support people with autism with their reading is to rely on their strengths in order to compensate for their reading difficulties. One of the amazing strengths of most people with autism is their exceptional ability to think in images, and we have found when we include images in text the participants with autism spent significantly longer looking at these images compared to the rest of the participants, and they also looked for information in a different way when they processed web pages.

The 21st century is referred to as ‘the age of information’, and it has proven how access to information can change our lives in so many different ways. What autism teaches us is that it is not just about having access to information, true accessibility in the 21st century means having access to its meaning, and having access to meaning for everyone is the new horizon we should be reaching for.”

(Victoria Yaneva – TEDEX Birmingham. 2016)

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