Tool helps autistic children access therapists at homeMonday September 12 2022
Access to therapy for children with autism has always been a headache. In Kenya, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown made it even harder for autistic children to visit therapists every week.
Fortunately, an invention by a couple living in Germany has come in handy reigniting hope among hundreds of parents.
The iZola Vitafluence platform co-founded by Dr Peter Owotoki, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) expert and his wife Dr Wamuyu Owotoki, a scientific and operations lead expert is now helping more than 160 children to get therapy, and at the comfort of their home. Over 1,000 parents are benefiting.
One of the parents, Dr Jane Muiruri, a mother of three says through the platform two of her children with autism are now able to utter words and function more independently than before, when she would take them to the hospital. The children are aged nine and seven.
“For the first time in her life, one of my daughters is now able to utter a word, the other can walk around the house independently, and feed herself, things they could not do before when they were being attended to by a specialist at the hospital,” she says.
Through the platform, Dr Muiruri says parents access therapists on their smartphones who also visit their homes to attend to the children and leave them with school work.
The iZola platform has been incorporated with a diagnostic system that uses AI to detect early autism effects on children and recommend specialised therapy that the child would require to function independently.
Over the years, machine learning — a branch of AI — has been used to identify speech patterns in children with autism, suggesting that features of speech might be a useful tool for diagnosing the condition.
Children with autism often talk more slowly than typically developing children, and exhibit other differences in pitch, intonation, and rhythm. But those differences are sometimes surprisingly difficult to characterise consistently and objectively.
Dr Wamuyu explains that they began the company first as a diagnostic system and the plan was to use AI to create objective biomarkers.
“We started with voice biomarkers to create digital biomarkers where you can simply use voice and collect data from different populations in the world and teach our machine to be able to identify autism,” she says.
Dr Wamuyu adds that their goal was to have children speak into the app, using their parents’ smartphones and diagnosis is done using AI.
Afterward, parents can get a report that they can take to the doctor or therapists.
Dr Wamuyu says their idea was born out of their educational and career background abroad. The couple met in Russia 20 years ago where they had gone to study. She studied pharmacy while her husband studied computer science.
They moved to Germany later to further their studies up to PhD level. She worked in the pharmaceutical field while Dr Peter was in the artificial intelligence field.
“Over the years, we have had a dream to bring what we studied abroad to Africa, then we realised that in most of the AI research, products are tested on people with white skin and not on people with darker skin,” she says.
Dr Wamuyu says artificial intelligence has been used in Germany and elsewhere to diagnose autism and help children to improve their emotional, social, and communication skills.
The couple started by contacting parent groups and worked with them to do the first trial in Kenya, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Our goal for this product is not to replace doctors, but to create an assistive diagnostic tool that will help doctors plan how to attend to autistic children,” she says.
Dr Wamuyu says AI can create patterns such that when someone enters a certain graph they will need to see a specialist.
“After developing the product, we realised that there was a gap as those who had been diagnosed needed to see specialists. That’s when we decided to make it easier for parents to access therapists, such as speech, music, and occupational therapists without necessarily going to hospitals but at home,” she says.
Dr Peter explains that parents can access the website, log in and access a list of therapists within their environs.
Parents also have control of the information they want a specialist to access about their children and they can also block a certain specialist whom they are uncomfortable with.
“For a therapist to be listed in the platform, they must be qualified and registered. They must also have a clean police record so that we do not have people claiming to be therapists then they are not,” says Dr Wamuyu.
Currently, parents also access therapists in South Africa and Germany on the platform.
Dr Muiruri says when Covid-19 happened, it became very difficult to access a therapist in hospitals.
“A therapist I knew connected us to them [iZola] and we became the first group of parents to join the platform,” she says. They began with doing the biomarker diagnosis and then connected to a therapist online through the iZola website.
“The difference between this platform and when we used to go to the hospital is that the child used to think she is sick, but when it is done at home, they feel comfortable,” she says.
“If I compare the over six years I have been going to Mathare and Kenyatta National Hospital taking my children for therapy and the two years I have been on this platform, I can tell you I have seen so much change,” says Dr Muiruri.
Currently, the platform is operational in Nairobi and its environs with a session costing parents Sh2,000. Each session takes one hour.
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