Autism education is going interactive thanks, in part, to Vancouver-based video game designer Taylan Kadayifcioglu.
Kadayifcioglu, who goes by the name Taylan Kay, and his two other team members created a video game demonstration called "Auti-Sim" that mimics living with hypersensitivity, a common symptom for those with autism.
The game was created in just 12 hours as part of last month's Vancouver's Hacking Health Hackathon, a computer programming event that encouraged technology experts to mix with health care professionals in order to find tech-based solutions to health issues. Rather than create a game purely for fun, Kay wanted to design one that would be educational and raise awareness about the daily challenges for people with autism.
"You have books and films that are not just about entertainment," said Kay. "I think it's about time that games did the same."
There have been multiple videos and films that have attempted to depict what it's like to have autism, but few video games.
"Auti-Sim," which can be played online, depicts the world through the eyes of a child with hypersensitivity. As the user walks around a playground, other children laugh and play on the equipment. However, anytime the user gets too close to the crowd, the situation becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, the children's laughter turns loud and cacophonous and their faces become abstractly distorted. The user can then escape the situation by moving to a quieter, more secluded area of the playground.
Kay said he was inspired to create the game after seeing a documentary on the subject and talking with his wife, who is a social worker working with autistic children.
"Their brains can't keep up with data," said Kay of those with hypersensitivity. "The [filmmaker's] metaphor was that their brains would eventually crash like a computer."
Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at the University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, said that programs such as "Auti-Sim" and other educational materials can provide a window for parents with autistic children to see how their children view the world.
"You need to understand why people are doing what they're doing," said Wiznitzer, who has not played the game. "Here's what I tell my parents [of patients with autism]: You need to be an informed consumer. You need to understand which is kiddie behavior and what is [autistic] behavior.
Wiznitzer said that autism-related hypersensitivity, or heightened sensitivity, can take many forms, including discomfort in clothing, inability to eat foods with certain textures or sensitivity to light.
"If you look at things from other people's perspectives… it makes it easier to think what can we do to help them out," said Wiznitzer.
While the demo version of "Auti-Sim" is limited to recreating a hypersensitive world, Kay and his team are working to develop a full version of the game that would take into consideration a wider range of autistic symptoms and would be available to the public for free.
While Kay received positive feedback from those with autism or autistic family members for "Auti-Sim," he also received criticism for not having a team member with autism help create the game.
Going forward, Kay said, he is meeting with different autism organizations and looking to partner with at least one organization to make sure that their concerns are addressed. For Kay, who grew up with a family member who suffered a similar sensory disorder, the game is as much a personal undertaking as a professional one.
"[It's] an invisible challenge," said Kay, "in that sense I do have a firsthand experience in how it can get in the way of having a normal life."