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Empowering autistic children: Ajit Narayanan at TED2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Hailing from the Talent Search salon in Bangalore, Ajit Narayanan is here to tell us about his work helping autistic children to communicate. One of the challenges that faces those working in this field: People with autism can sometimes find it difficult to understand abstraction or symbolism–and therefore they struggle with language.

Much contemporary therapy involves the use of images; children can pick out images to communicate that they want a bowl of soup, for instance. A common technique, it’s effective … as far as it goes. What this system doesn’t do is help children understand word patterns or grammar. “Grammar is one component of language that takes this finite vocabulary we all have and allows us to convey an infinite amount of information.” How, then, could Narayanan give grammar to autistic children? 

The answer came from an unexpected place. One day, he was sitting in a room with an autistic child, who suddenly said “eat.” The mother tried to tease out the meaning of what the child actually wanted to say. Eat what? Eat ice cream? You want to eat? Eat now? She was able to get the child to communicate without the use of grammar–and that provided Narayanan with inspiration for the project he tackled next, Free Speech, based around a series of questions, answers and filters. He demonstrates the simple relationship of visuals–how they can be adapted, and how it is possible to start with any part of the sentence to communicate effectively. Applause.


Image courtesy of ImageThink/ Prezi

Next he created the Free Speech engine, designing an app that includes both words and grammar. His tests were promising: The autistic kids he worked with seemed to find Free Speech easier to use than English to communicate. The next obvious question: Might it be possible to use Free Speech not just for children with autism but to teach language to all? He built a word game, recently licensed by the government of India to teach English to that nation’s children. But it could be used to teach pretty much any language. “The vast majority of the code behind the language is not English specific,” he says. It could be used in French, German, Swahili …

“Language is beautiful,” Narayanan concludes with a bright, infectious grin. “What I like the most is that it empowers. It allows us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.” He quotes Daniel Webster: “If all my possessions were taken from me, with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of communication — for with it, I would regain all the rest.”