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Scientist developing tool to help children with autism communicate grant

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by November 18, 2016 General

Christchurch scientist Dr Swati Gupta has received a $25,000 boost to further develop her revolutionary tool Talk With Me, a high-tech software based communication training platform for children with Autism. The grant from the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Fund, awarded to help early career scientists develop clever new ideas and work closely with business to take it to market, is one of ten made possible by a donation from the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation.

The Talk With Me platform helps children learn cooperative skills through turn-taking conversations based on visual symbols, text and sound. It allows children to follow fundamental rules of social interaction and communicate with each other.

An expert in Human-Computer interaction, Dr Swati Gupta, a Senior Research Scientist at Callaghan Innovation says, “Unlocking the world of a child with special needs is profoundly exciting. Seeing children who have difficulty in social interaction experience the joy of connecting with others is an absolute highlight of my work. I’m delighted to be awarded this funding as it opens a whole new world of possibilities for Talk With Me to powerfully impact children’s lives.”

Talk With Me provides a customisable interface for the caregiver to create conversations they want the child to practice. It can be optimised for an individual’s or groups’ level, age, condition, culture and language.

Dr Gupta says, “It’s still early days, but initial test results are already impressive when comparing Talk With Me with conventional teaching. We’ve recently completed a trial with autistic children at a local special needs school and results are very positive.”

Speech Language Therapist at Hilmorton High School’s Upland Unit, Sarah Powell says, “In our school environment, the students were able to communicate for 10-15 minutes using this tool, without any teacher aide intervention. And these were children who, previously, if left alone without any teacher aide, wouldn’t communicate at all.”

Jacinta Grice, Upland Unit’s Head of Department Teacher says, “By encouraging social interaction between peers without the need of a teacher aide we can help develop social skills that can be transferred in daily living. Staff have reported that some students are still greeting each other, some three months after using the tool.”

Gupta says that in addition to helping children with autism, Talk With Me can also help with speech and language disorders, Cerebral Palsy, and ADHD. “We currently have trials underway in New Zealand, UK, USA and India to establish efficacy. These trials will help us understand the nuances of different markets and cultures and how best to design the product for them,” she says.

Gupta’s research focus in Human-Computer Interaction is inspired by theories in Cognitive Science, Social Psychology and Linguistics. After completing her PhD from the University of Sheffield, UK in 2008, Gupta worked as a Scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A-STAR) in Singapore until November 2014 when she joined the Research and Technical Services (RTS) team at Callaghan Innovation.

Eager to apply her research to social, environmental and health problems, Gupta is rapidly building an understanding of the commercial environment that Talk With Me is entering. “The Emerging Innovator funding is being used to help understand the market and further development of the current prototype. And, as important are the additional benefits wrapped around it by KiwiNet. The support is wonderful, it’s really opened my eyes to all the myriad of factors that impact getting research discoveries to market,” says Dr Gupta.

Keen to help Dr Gupta realise the potential of her research, KiwiNet Chair and Investment Committee Member Hon Ruth Richardson connected her with experts in the field of child development. Gill Connell from Moving Smart Ltd, a New Zealand global authority on child development, has taken on the role of commercial mentor. Business partner Cheryl McCarthy, former Vice President of Intellectual Property Development for Hasbro, Inc. and Linda Monach, consultant and former Marketing Director for Hasbro, have also stepped up to advise Swati and have connected her to schools in US for conducting trials.

“Gill, Cheryl and Linda’s business expertise has also been invaluable. They have helped me understand the business environment and appreciate branding among other things. My research is at a really exciting stage, and I can’t wait to see it turn into a product available in the market,” says Dr Gupta.

The KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Fund, established thanks to the generous support of the Norman F B Barry Foundation, is available to early career researchers based at universities and Crown Research Institutes across New Zealand who demonstrate a clever new idea and a willingness to work closely with industry as they develop a prototype. Recipients also receive expert legal advice from KiwiNet (www.kiwinet.org.nz) corporate partners, MinterEllisonRuddWatts and IP advice from Baldwins.

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