Reactive Colours is an innovative project that is developing software to promote enjoyment and social interaction in severely autistic children.
In contrast to existing packages, it is using a non-commercial open source development model, and is aiming to include the autistic and Asperger’s community as developers and contributors to the project.
I caught up with project leader Wendy Keay-Bright at London’s Autistic Pride Day to ask her about the project.
Your background is in animation and multimedia. So, what got you interested in working with people with autism and Asperger’s spectrum?
Animation is a truly expressive medium, bringing together all the qualities of drawing with movement, music, narrative, spatial dynamics, choreography, and more. These are the things that have always inspired me. Reactive Colours synthesises many of my experiences in animation, and also my interest as a lecturer in Graphic Communication and Interactive Media.
While my childen were very young I spent a lot of time learning software programmes at home and tried to involve them by designing games. Inspired by John Maeda I became fascinated by ‘reactive graphics’ and so began looking into experiential design and technology, particularly as a process for exploratory learning.
To cut a very long story short – I decided to focus on Special Educational Needs and undertook a feasibility study which strongly indicated that this therapeutic way of working with computers could have particular resonance for children on the autistic spectrum.
Discovering the work of Dinah Murray and Mike Lesser provided the motivation and incentive to actively develop Reactive Colours and continues to provide a theoretical framework for the project.
There’s plenty of software packages aimed at helping people with autism or Asperger’s. Why is Reactive Colours different ?
The design of the software prioritises the computer as a medium. The computer becomes an environment where exploration and play, which are vital in the learning process, can occur spontaneously. This contrasts with the generally accepted notion that the mouse, keyboard, screen and even programming code, are purely functional components in a system.
Many computer programmes for autistic children focus on task or making progress, and this in some cases, can lead to the feeling of failure or children can become ‘locked in’ to a task and resist communication with others.
A highly significant goal in autism education is the achievement of joint attention tunnels. With this in mind it has been encouraging to witness children share their Reactive Colours activity session (which we are calling ‘Reactivities’) with their peers in monitored classroom environments.
This has been most dramatic in a multi-sensory environment using the interactive whiteboard where children use their hands and bodies to choreograph stunning visual effects.
Multi sensory stimuli can be alarming for some children, however the Reactivities reward touch and sound with simple forms – colour, shape and words and deliberately avoids sensory overload.
You mention on the website that you have been using early versions of some of the activities with children with autism. What has the reaction been like ?
The most encouraging and consistent responses to early trials which we have been evaluating using video, questionnaires and interviews, have been that the Reactivities software is calming and reduces anxiety.
High levels of anxiety are very commonly found in children on the autistic spectrum. The experience of playing with Reactivities on the computer is entirely intuitive; the reactive graphics focus on spontaneous mark-making and cause and effect.
Expressive mark-making can relieve tension and outwardly represent inner experiences. Rhythm, sound, space, velocity, colour, shape and movement are created and controlled by the individual as they experiment with the mouse, keyboard and microphone input devices. This expression of creativity is personal, unique and ultimately satisfying.
Children are content to choose and explore, take turns and co-operate with others, all of which are significant for individuals on the autistic spectrum. The capacity to have fun is an almost universal human coping mechanism for dealing with stress, however for many autistic children this vital tool for releasing energy is not realised.
From our early experience of developing Reactive Colours with young autistic children we have seen opportunities for structured and parallel play that may help to create a calm environment for participatory learning.
You’ve opted to open license much of the project. How do you think this will help the project ?
We are choosing to utilise a significantly extended meaning of the phrase ‘open source’ not only to delineate a licensing scheme, but rather to invite participation from the autistic community in the design, research, implementation and future of the project.
Opportunities for user-focused development and iteration will be enhanced through the availability on the Reactive Colours website of the programming code. This code will provide individuals keen to experiment with computation, access to the tools needed to customise the software and to share their Reactivities with others.
The opportunity to adapt content has particular significance for users of the website as one of the features of autism is the capacity for structured thinking, logic and creativity. There is a strong possibility that should the code be made accessible, the emphasis on ownership will be with the users and design can be a demoncratic process.
How can the autism and Asperger’s community get involved ?
Although the Reactive Colours website has not yet been officially launched, (we are aiming to do this Spring 2006 when the Reactivities have been completely iterated with users) we would encourage anyone interested in the project to post their details on the forum and visit the site regularly for updates.
Teachers, parents and advisors who would like to participate in evaluating the prototype software can email me (wendy [at] reactivecolours.org) with their contact information.
Disclaimer: Vaughan advises the project on open licensing.