Children with learning difficulties can be difficult to spot in a crowded, busy classroom. If they are fortunate enough to be spotted, teachers and parents can often be at a loss to know how best to help them. The child may quickly drop behind its peers and become withdrawn. Without supportive intervention, the neglected child experiencing learning difficulties, particularly dyslexia but also mild Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) problems, can face a lifetime of disadvantage.
Precise calculations are difficult but it’s generally accepted that about 10% of the population – whatever the country – has some form of dyslexia, and 1% an ASD. This spectrum is very wide-ranging, from severe to the relatively mild form called Asperger’s syndrome. While dyslexia does not seem to be on the increase, ASD diagnoses are much higher than a decade ago according to one US-based academic study. The same study, from 2012, carries a sombre prognosis for young ASD sufferers: “Some studies have found that 12% to 24% of [ASD-affected] youth are not engaged in any productive activities in young adulthood. A total lack of participation in the years after high school has been associated with poorer behavioural outcomes, especially among youth with low incomes.” Another serious obstacle to acquiring educational skills at an early age is ADHD – Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder., which affects roughly 11% of children between 4-17 years. According to the UK charity Dyslexia Action, one in six adults has the reading skills of an 11 year-old. Learning difficulties can have a knock-on throughout life. Inability to read and write efficiently, and cope with basic numeracy, undermines individual confidence and inhibits the acquisition of other skills.
Thanks to this week’s profiled company, iSMART, there is a new tool for teachers, parents and children to help them cope with these problems. I spoke to Angele Giuliano, iSMART’s CEO, to find out more. “About five years ago one of my employees” says Giuliano, “had a dyslexic child, which caused her a lot of distress. One day she said to me ‘we really need to do something about this.’ I said: ‘we’re a tech company, the only thing we can do is software’. So we started to consider, what would a software package designed to help children with learning difficulties look like? What functionalities would it need? And where are we going to test it? We were fortunate enough to know different schools and people in the education sector in diverse European countries. We got together with colleagues from the Czech Republic, from Turkey, from Sweden, from Italy. We got support and pitched this as a research project. In a way it was a baptism of fire. But actually the big diversity of countries was helpful, because we could see the software was really helping the kids, teachers and the parents, no matter the linguistic differences.”
This piloting exercise, testing the software with around 100 children, received such good feedback that iSMART knew it was onto something. It decided to move from concept to business. It’s no longer just a group of friends testing out some software. Naturally, the software packages – which can be seen and experienced here – are customised and localised according to different national languages. “Every time we go a different language area we get teachers, psychologists, special educational needs’ experts, to look at and customise the package. It’s not just a matter of simple translation – it’s much more than that. At the moment our biggest challenge is that we have a lot of interest from Gulf state countries, who want our programmes in Arabic. This will be an exponential leap in complexity,” says Giuliano.
Privately owned at the moment, iSMART clearly has major growth potential. With an established presence in its home, Malta, it’s already, in less than a year, finding a welcome too in Italy and Poland’s educational sectors. “We believe we have enough of a first-mover advantage and specialist know-how to give us enough of a head-start against any would-be competitors,” says Giuliano. She continues: “even the very big players are not a threat because they don’t really focus very much on educational special needs. They see it as too niche for them.”
Delving a bit deeper into iSMART’s software, Giuliano explains how it interacts with children experiencing ADHD. “We have a strong emphasis on ADHD. Why? Because kids who are experiencing ADHD find it very difficult to focus. The way that one of the functionalities of iSMART works for reading and writing is that it really narrows down each line of text that the child is reading or writing. They focus on one line at a time and don’t get distracted or confused.” One of the natty aspects of the iSMART software is the ‘reading ruler’, helpful to children with mild autism. It’s visually similar to a small window that allows the child to see one line of text at a time, which the child can move down at their own speed, while at the same time listening to a voice reading the text.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. But iSMART’s impact report sets out not just its ambitions and investment requirements – it also demonstrates a strong confidence in its product, in that it gives schools a 60-day trial period to test the software packages. Says Giuliano: “Meeting the Social Stock Exchange was, for me, a cardinal moment. I realised that someone was looking at making the world a better place.” For learning difficulties children and their parents, iSMART is making the world a better place too.
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