Soldiers, parents of autistic children, high school students and random volunteers joined forces in Tel Aviv to make life easier for people with autism and their caregivers.

Some 85 people took part in a 24-hour hackathon last month organized by OFEK, the computing unit of the IAF. Held jointly with ALUT, the Israel Society for Autistic Children, people worked in groups to put innovation in the service of disability by creating an app or computer program for the benefit of the children.

“Until recently, the only treatment available for autistic children and adults in Israel was admission into psychiatric hospital,” said Arkady Gurevich, chairman of OFEK Alumni Association. “Even the necessary equipment or tools required to diagnose a patient as autistic are minimal or of poor quality due to costly-budget issues.”

The project also helped OFEK soldiers meet the three goals they abide by: “networking, working better together and contributing to society,” said Gurevich, who was in charge of ensuring the smooth running of the collaboration. “This is important for our soldiers as it allows us to put our knowledge into practice, all while continuing to learn at the same time, creating a lasting legacy of productive work.”

Gurevich explained that the hackathon’s 24-hour time frame “provides an indication of how quickly we can respond to a need through technology.”

Participating groups prepare for the start of the hackathon. (Dror Sitahkol)

Participating groups prepare for the start of the hackathon. (Dror Sitahkol)

Prior to the hackathon, ALUT organized several meetings in which therapists, specialists and psychologists educated the soldiers and volunteers about autism and the challenges of both the children and their parents. They introduced some 100 different challenges in total, out of which ALUT chose 13.

OFEK then divided all the participants into 13 different groups with each group tackling one task.

The challenges

The blank facial expression is a typical issue for autistic people who do not know how to show facial expressions when they are happy, mad or sad. The condition makes communication between autistic individuals and their caregivers extremely difficult as the facial expressions are impossible to read.

Participants try out some technology developed at the hackathon. (Dror Sitahkol)

Participants try out some technology developed at the hackathon. (Dror Sitahkol)

One group tackled this challenge by creating an app that aims to teach the autistic person how to express their feelings.

The app that was developed displays the an image of a smiling face and asks the person to imitate it. Then the app does the same for other feelings. The app monitors the expressions of the users to give them feedback if they are doing it correctly or not.

Navigation is another issue that burdens both people with autism and their caregivers. It is common for autistic persons going out in a group to want to wander off on their own. The navigation tools and apps currently available are complex to use due to an overload of information, and maps that are complicated to read.

One group aimed at simplifying the current tools by creating a GPS built-in wearable device for the autistic person. The device would then be linked to an app so that if one leaves the group’s perimeters, the instructor would get an immediate update on where the person is.

Another group tackled the inability of autistic individuals to maintain eye-contact. Autistic people have difficulty looking at one specific thing at the time. Quantifying the lack of eye contact would help doctors measure the severity of the autism, so the soldiers came up with a way to help doctors measure eye contact in an objective way — they created a camera-like device to monitor the patients’ eye contact.

This project with ALUT “is the first of many to come, as OFEK intends on using its soldiers’ powerful skills and knowledge to help one non-profit organization a year,” Gurevich said. “While the project took place in the form of a competition, the real prize was to bring attention to the autistic community of Israel and eventually develop what could be life changing technology for many.”