Two years ago, Ofir Harel began looking for ways to help his autistic son communicate. Adam's therapist suggested his parents look for mobile-phone applications that would allow him to use symbols to communicate.
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Harel checked the existing options and did find erasable keyboards, that could help children communicate their desires and feelings using illustrations accompanied by words, but only at close range. None offered a way to communicate with the remote environment via messaging. Thus Adam, who doesn't use the phone for verbal conversations, couldn't "speak" with anybody unless they were right next to him.
So Harel established Ola Mundo, an application that uses illustration and symbols to create a language for autistic children and their parents to communicate from afar as well.
Instant messaging with voice options
Unlike the other applications, Ola Mundo's principle is similar to Whatsapp — instant messaging to which voice can be added. The interface was designed to be fun and whimsical, appealing to children.
The symbols and illustrations Ola Mundo uses were drawn by an illustrator of children’s books, who designed the app’s main character to be friendly, again appealing to children. Each symbol represents a word, but users can personalize the application by allowing the symbols to represent words of their own choice. They can also upload photographs or illustrations that are familiar to the child and use them.
“Communication with Adam is functional. It’s easier for him to use visual communication with symbols. The autism spectrum is broad. It ranges from children who speak and write and are integrated into society to children who are not integrated at all. Adam is in the middle of the spectrum. Some children are too advanced for the application,” Harel says.
Although Ola Mundo was developed to help autistic children communicate, it is also for special-needs children, such as those who do not write or speak, and who need assistance in communicating with their environment. Children with learning disabilities can also use it.
The tablet becomes their voice
“The special-needs population deserves special applications with an emotional connection,” Harel says. “On the one hand, they need to learn a new language. On the other, it’s important that it be fun. Most of these children don’t know how to write, so they need symbols to communicate. The tablet becomes their voice.”
Family members install Ola Mundo on their iPads, enabling them to communicate at close range or from far away. Adding more contacts to the closed family network is done manually, and it is controlled to protect the child.
Harel says that unlike Whatsapp and IM applications that use symbols and icons to communicate, Ola Mundo has thousands of symbols that each express a word and can be used, like a language, to communicate. “Whatsapp has a limited number of symbols,” he says. “I can’t use a series of symbols to understand what you want. It’s not suitable for everyday use, and it’s definitely not a language. It doesn’t fulfill the basic need of expressing needs and desires.”
Ola Mundo is reminiscent of Zlango, another Israeli-made application, which also enabled basic communication via symbols and illustrations, but was marketed to the general public.
The Ola Mundo app has been downloaded several hundred times since its launch in Israel about three weeks ago. It is available only for the iPad and can be downloaded from the Israeli App Store, but will be available on the international market within two months. Later on, it will be launched for the iPhone, and versions for other platforms are in the works.
Ola Mundo costs $80 per year to use — a high amount compared to most IM applications for the general public, which are either free or cost little.