Hillel's Tech Corner: Emotiplay: ‘Emotion gym’ for kids with autism

Children on the spectrum can be taught to recognize emotions, facial expressions and social cues they don’t perceive intuitively.

Emotiplay (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My two favorite summers were spent as a counselor at a camp for individuals with special needs. Whether it was Down syndrome, Tourette’s or autism, I had the opportunity to work with people who were truly special, in the purest meaning of the word.
If there was a way to use technology to make life easier for people with autism and their families, it would definitely be a worthwhile cause. I’m always interested in companies that combine tech with impact, so Emotiplay, an Israeli company that’s using technology to teach people with autism to recognize social and emotional cues, piqued my interest.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is exactly what its name says: a spectrum. Some people with autism can’t communicate verbally or handle basic life functions independently. Others can manage successful careers and raise families. But no matter where they are on the spectrum, a common denominator among people with ASD is that they have difficulty identifying emotions and interpreting social cues. They struggle to understand facial expressions, tones of voice, and gestures that other people understand intuitively. This impacts how people with ASD perceive relationships and social situations, and creates a barrier between them and society. The disconnect can impact every element of their lives. They are often bullied or ostracized by their communities.
Autism affects approximately 1.5% of the total world population, and close to 20 million people in Europe and North America alone. Statistics show that numbers are growing. In 2013, almost 2% of school children in the US were diagnosed with ASD. People with autism need services and treatment, but they need different types of treatment than the general population. The autism treatment market was valued at $2 billion in 2020 and is forecasted to grow 4% per year to $2.45 billion by 2025.
Treatment and support for people with autism place an enormous economic burden on families, as well on society as a whole. Official statistics show that on average, expenditures for individuals with ASD were four to six times greater than for those without ASD. Intensive behavioral interventions can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year per person. Parents and teachers often find that the best tools to help a child with ASD integrate into society simply aren’t accessible financially, or aren’t available in their geographic area.
Such a prevalent problem demands a better solution, which is where the Israeli company Emotiplay comes in. Emotiplay uses accessible and affordable technology to teach people with autism how to identify and act on emotional and social cues.
The idea behind Emotiplay is that children on the autism spectrum can be taught to recognize emotions, facial expressions and social cues that they don’t perceive intuitively. Through repetition – exposing them to the emotion/cues in different contexts – they can learn to consistently identify an emotion and associate the proper response with it. It’s like a gym where they can build their emotional “muscles.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, the world-renowned animal-behavior scientist who is herself autistic, famously described the experience of being an autistic person in society as like being “an anthropologist on Mars.” Like an anthropologist in a foreign culture, she can’t intuitively understand the human behavior she observes. Instead, she has to study the behavior to identify rules and patterns and learn the appropriate responses.
Emotiplay uses research-based examples and techniques to guide children through the process and gives parents, teachers and other caregivers tools to support the learning process.
THE CURRENT product focuses on children ages four and older. Fun, animated characters teach the child clues to recognize emotions in three modalities: facial expression clues, voice and speech clues, and body language clues. Body language clues include both “outside my body” (recognizing what others feel) and “inside my body” (recognizing his/her own emotions, which is also difficult for autistic children). Kids don’t use the program independently; the program can be used either as a tool for parent-child interaction and/or within therapy.
“It isn’t a miracle cure,” says Gil Ilutowich, CEO. “It’s not like riding a bike, where you learn the skill once and have it for life. It’s more like a gym, if you don’t practice, you lose it.”
Emotiplay was founded in 2015 by Compedia Ltd, an education software company with more than 30 years of experience developing advanced technological learning solutions for millions of learners. Based in Ramat Gan, the company raised a million dollars in seed money from private investors and the Israel Innovation Authority. The company launched with research through an EU-funded study done by a consortium of universities including Cambridge University in the UK and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, to test the technology. Prof. Simon Baron Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge,and a leading autism researcher, led the study. The results were clear: After using the program for 10 weeks, children with ASD were able to better recognize and identify emotions.
The product has been endorsed by early adopters including autism associations and leading experts in the field, some of whom are actively involved in the product development. For example, Emotiplay signed a collaboration agreement with the Autism Society of America to promote its products in the USA. The company has also signed agreements with similar organizations in Canada and Australia, and plans to market directly to schools and families in the future.
There are other products in the market designed for people with autism. However, Emotiplay’s interactive feedback technology is the only solution that teaches users how to recognize and analyze emotion effectively, in a structured systematic learning program.
“What is unique in Emotiplay is the collaboration with leading universities that allows us to build on academic research that a commercial company couldn’t do on its own,” says Ilutowich.
Dr. Ofer Golan, a leading expert on autism in Israel, has been an avid supporter of Emotiplay and has conducted research on its impact. Golan is an associate professor and the head of the autism research clinical lab at Bar-Ilan University, as well as the clinical supervisor for Bayit Echad Clinical Centers for Individuals with ASD.
“Our research results have shown that following the use of [the product], children with high-functioning autism ages five to nine significantly improved their ability to recognize emotions from facial expressions, vocal intonation, and body language,” Golan reports.
In the next stages, the company plans to develop products for different age groups and has even done initial research on using facial-recognition software to give people with ASD feedback on their own facial expressions.
As someone who has friends with autism and has worked closely with people with autism, I can only hope and pray that the world gets to experience this impactful product and that the company succeeds in its incredibly important mission.