Autism Awareness Week: My tech life

Jamie pictured with lion cuddly toy

To mark #WAAW World Autism Awareness Week I asked Jamie Knight, senior accessibility specialist in User Experience and Design at the BBC, who is autistic himself about the technology he finds useful in his daily life.

Claudia: Hi Jamie, thanks for speaking to us. Apple's Autism Acceptance video showing non-verbal autistic teenager Dillan communicating using type-to-speech technology for the first time has touched viewers around the globe.

What are your thoughts on the tech mentioned in the Apple film such as Proloquo4Text, Assistive Express and Keeble?

Jamie: Hi there. Proloquo4Text is the speech app I mainly use. I lost my speech almost entirely eight months ago after an operation. It sometimes happens as part of being autistic, it happened once before for seven months.

Proloque4Text is the obvious tech to work through impairments. My iPhone (or iPod touch) give me my voice. I also use sign language and text edit on my Mac with the font size really large, so other people can read my words for me sometimes.

Claudia: Any other speech apps you'd recommend?

Jamie: AutoVerbal - an iOS speech app, is also very good. Mac OS has really good text to speech. It's available in any app and has a keyboard shortcut. I use it too verbalise my words for me. This is how I do meetings at BBC. It can be configured to sound like me - eg male and 26, not female and 30. The speech flows well and rarely has trouble reading acronyms, for example, like others do.

Claudia: Is it mainly Apple products you use?

Jamie: Yes, 100% iOS or Mac. I use my own phone and the BBC also provide me with an iPod touch for running speech generation. I've tried android and check for updates, I don't find it very good for speech generation. All the good tools, in my opinion, are on iOS and iPod touch runs them really well.

Claudia: Have you always been good at tech?

Jamie: One way of thinking about my skills is like an advanced five year old. I'm good at some things like code, maths, tech stuff and terrible at other things like crossing roads and not getting muddled doing things which are new. I need quite a lot of day-to-day support with things like cooking and following routines etc. Care agencies just don't understand autism and I find they cost lots of money, so I put an advert on a babysitting website for someone and we found an awesome lady who's got 20 years of experience with autism and was happy to work with an adult. She supports me every evening and without her help I wouldn't be living independently.

Below: One of the images drawn by Jamie's friend to help him remember his daily routine. Jamie has put the images into a simple app. 

cartoon lion brushing teeth

Claudia: What other technology works for you?

Jamie: I also use the messenger app Telegram - my friends maintain a chat room on it to help me with things. It's how we organise my support and they help me with stuff like physical post. If someone rings my house front door (something I struggle with!) I can ask them for advice for example, and can call them for help if needed. Just knowing there's a group of people helps reduced my anxiety. 

Claudia: Tell us about what you've created to control the lighting in your flat?

Jamie: My entire flat has smart lights because I am extremely sensitive to light levels and get sensory overload. I can control the lighting levels in my flat from an Xbox controller. When I get stressed or tired my hands go numb and I lose motor movement precision so a big chunky Xbox controller is ideal. I wrote the software for the Xbox controller to work my lights - it's on my GitHub account and runs on a raspberry pi. It's available at https://github.com/JamieKnight/xbox-node-hue and is open source.

Claudia: And, you said that noise cancelling headphones are useful?

Jamie: I'm easily over loaded with noise. I use a set of plantronic noise cancelling headphone and regular ear defenders to help me manage noise. 

Claudia: How much developing do you do?

Jamie uses his website to share his styory about living with autismJamie: I build my own apps. I have a collection of apps for visual routines, such as showering and brushing my teeth (pictured), otherwise I forget to do certain stages of my routine. A friend of mine is an artist and draws me little cards and then I put them into an app which allows me to go through things in order. They are super simple iOS applications.

I also visit the local autism hub three days a week to use the sensory room. I make apps for people there - they're my beta testers. I'm going to open source the framework and I'm offering the apps as a paid service.

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