A Disney movie, parental love, and two autistic sons whose connection with Buzz and Woody gave them the language to communicate were all key to formulating a simple but genius idea that could help autistic kids the world over.
As Enda and Valerie Dodd struggled to connect with their twin boys, Eoin and Conor, diagnosed as highly autistic, effectively deaf, and dyspraxic, traditional therapies seemed to make little impact.
With a background in clinical design and research, Enda was used to observing doctors at work and devising tools to make their practice more effective. Applying the same principle at home, he and Valerie spent hours observing their sons, gradually realising what it was that really brought them to life.
“It’s the most amazing thing with autistic children,” says Enda. “If you watch them, they will show you how they can learn. Our boys would live and die to watch Disney Toy Story. It engaged them from start to finish and then they would act out the scenes, rolling around the floor, one playing Woody, the other Buzz.
“What I could see was if we could split up the movie into segments, it would be a good way of showing them emotions.”
For instance, Enda used a scene where an annoyed Woody contrives to push Buzz out the window to demonstrate what it meant to “get mad”. At the same time, the boys’ parents would show them the word ‘mad’ and the twins would make the connection between the show of emotion and the language to describe it.
That was the genesis for what has now become Animated Language Learning (ALL) Inc, a company focused on creating a visually rich language learning programme that has already lifted the twins out of the isolation of autism.
Creating this innovative software solution took the family from Valerie’s native Galway to Silicon Valley, where leading autism expert Bryna Siegal opened many doors, including access to clinical experts and to Disney and Pixar creatives.
Enda had “sat outside Dr Bryna’s office for six months” because he heard she was the best for treating autism and he eventually gained access. It turned out Dr Siegal worked with some of the families employed by Disney, and introductions were made.
“It was just serendipity that connected us up,” says Enda. “There was a lot of serendipity throughout the project.”
Enda quit his job at Medtronics to focus fully on developing his idea. Fundraising, family, and friends saw them through, he says.
The hard work paid off leading to ALL, now being further developed at the NUI Galway Business Innovation Centre following the decision by Enda and Valerie, a primary school teacher, to relocate home. Valerie’s teaching background helps inform curriculum development at ALL. The company has a board of clinical advisors who help adjudicate on who the language programme will benefit.
So what of the boys?
“Eoin is now fully fluent and going into Presentation College in Athenry,” Enda says.
Conor is fully literature but not fully verbal. However, he works fulltime for ALL and is creating content for the programme.
“But when I think about Conor it’s not so much about academic development, it’s about social development,” says Enda. “And he is lapping it up here on the campus at NUIG.”
Learn more about ALL at: animatedlanguagelearning. com
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