A researcher in Grenoble, France is developing an application in the form of a game to help young children with autism recognize, identify and reproduce emotions on their faces through an avatar.  

Building on innovation to strengthen human relationships. Such is the goal of Emoface, an application that aims to help autistic children understand, learn and express emotions to better manage social interactions.  

Adela Barbulescu, a computer scientist at the University of Grenoble Alpes, developed the tool by finding inspiration when writing her thesis on the analysis of facial expressions and emotions. The 31-year-old scientist worked with autistic children and adolescents as well as medical institutions’ staff for more than a year to understand their needs and develop this application. For Adela, “the avatar offers children a dynamic, interactive situation where the morphology of a face can be changed”. 

A useful application for families  

The game first addresses emotional expression, for example displaying a smiling face. The child will then have to find in the pictograms the one that corresponds to the smile. Also, the child will have to recognize emotions that the game offers, choosing the right answer in a multiple-choice questionnaire. The next level allows him or her to practice understanding social situations with an explaining text. The child must then choose the right reaction to have between two faces expressing different expressions. Finally, thanks to the camera, the game asks the child to reproduce expressions on his face. The 3D avatar will come alive by measuring its success rate in reproducing the expression.  

Sylvie, mother of the 9-year-old Mathis tested the home application. For her son, a non-verbal autistic, the tablet was a more playful way to work on emotions. The avatar trains Mathis to imitate the emotions he identifies. The last step will be for him to spontaneously reproduce an expression, like a grimace, elsewhere than at home.  

A daily plus for autistic children  

Dominique Dossena , director of the very first autism unit of APF France handicap in Grenoble since 2016, welcomed the tablet as a “daily plus” in addition to the basic methods used to help autistic children improve their facial expressions. Strongly focused on innovation, its teams, composed of 15 professionals for twenty children, tested Emoface on 6 emotions with children aged 6 to 15 years. “We will integrate it into our practices because the children’s reactions were very positive and the families are ready,” said the director.  

An intuitive tool for the younger generation  

Carine, a psychomotor therapist, has tested the prototype of Emoface in pairs with her neuropsychologist colleague on fifteen autistic young adolescents aged 13 to 20.  

“We were able to use the app via a tablet during individual or small group support sessions and adapt the difficulty levels according to the age,” said Carine. The tablet made it possible to have a neutral link between the medical team and the autistic children. 

The tablet remains an intuitive tool for this young generation. At the IME of Grenoble, the medical team hopes that such an application can provide improvements to the daily life of children, at the bakery or at the butcher, and help families. “We had this feeling with some young children who gradually managed to access higher levels of cognition” added the psychomotor therapist.

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