Student’s program teaches autistic kids

By  Natalie Guadagnoli, The Catholic Register
  • August 13, 2007

{mosimage}BURLINGTON, Ont.  - What started off as a simple attempt to help her autistic cousin learn to read and write turned into a computer program fully equipped with music, animations, bright colours and love.

Kayla Cornale, who graduated this year from Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington, designed the program in hopes of communicating with her 10-year-old cousin Lorena and bringing her large family closer together.

“I have 13 cousins and we’re a very close family so I wanted to create something that could help her communicate with our whole family,” Cornale explains.

Her program Sounds into Syllables teaches language in a musical format. The child learns all the letters of the alphabet because the letters are paired with musical piano notes.

“To my cousin letters were just symbols and when I would ask her to print her name she’d just draw crossing lines,” Cornale said.

With Sounds into Syllables the child also learns 26 nouns. The nouns are given pictures, sound effects and letters. This process can improve the child’s ability to learn the language because it activates several areas of the brain. The program also links the learned nouns with related verbs. The animations, constructed in a story format, begins to transfer from single words to full sentences.

Cornale won the 2006 Youth in Motion Top 20 under 20 award, a national award  honouring young Canadians who have demonstrated a high level of innovation, leadership and achievement before the age of 20. She was also one of the 19 students invited to represent Canada at the 2005 and 2006 Intel International Science and Engineering fairs in Arizona and India respectively.

The computer program, created last year, also caught the attention of numerous professors, including a professor at Yale University Dr. Robert Schultz. The two met to talk about the program and the professor offered Cornale a summer internship. 

Not only has Cornale received many awards, she was also asked to be a guest speaker at a symposium hosted by the Ontario Genomics Institute at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto last year.

This year eight elementary schools and two high schools in the Halton Catholic District School Board introduced Cornale’s program into their classroom. As the students use this program, teachers have been recording the data and checking for improvements.

There is also an elementary school in Trenton, Ont., using the program and an elementary school in New Jersey. 

Cornale is still conducting further research and hopes to create a series of books and games that will help autistic children learn to not only how to read and write, but also how to deal with their emotions and feelings.

“When we first started (Lorena) was too scared to touch the keys because she thought they’d hurt her, but we worked through that. It was amazing to watch her break those barriers,” Cornale said.

Thanks to much help from her older cousin, Lorena is now able to look through books and pick up certain words. Although she can’t pick up a book and read it on her own yet, she has made improvement in her reading.

Lorena is currently working with Cornale and teachers to help her move forward.

By working on this program with her cousin Cornale has really got to know her better. She said she was able to watch her learn and grow every day and meet the child behind the autism.

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