A new mobile application, SOFA, aims at making life easier for persons on the autism spectrum and their relatives/caregivers.

The SOFA App (Stories Online for People with Autism) is a project created by the Inspire Foundation, the University of Bath (UK) and Epic. The mobile application, which is available free of charge, was developed by Deloitte Digital.

The aim behind the SOFA app is to help people on the autism spectrum to understand what is socially acceptable behaviour and what is not, by using social stories. Autism is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment.

Social stories are short descriptions of a particular event, situation or activity.  They give examples of what one should accept and what behaviour is appropriate, helping people on the autism spectrum prepare for situations which are new or outside normal routine. These use sequencing to explain what comes next in a series of activities, which has been shown to help reduce anxiety and overstimulation of senses. Four peer-reviewed journals provide evidence that an application like SOFA helps children on the autism spectrum achieve their goals and undesirable behaviours are reduced in both intensity and frequency.

The SOFA App helps parents, guardians and professionals working with persons on the autism spectrum to create social stories. The app also comes with an extensive story library about common situations and activities, which one can use and adapt. These cover a wide range of topics from personal hygiene, going to the dentist and COVID-19.

The SOFA app was initially developed by a research team based within the Centre of Applied Autism Research at the University of Bath (UK), in collaboration with a number of local schools for autistic children and families from the autism community. The development of the mobile application was made possible through the collaboration of the Inspire Foundation and Epic, formerly known as the Vodafone Malta Foundation.

“This project has been three years in the making and it has been an incredible journey of collaboration, learning and development – as a result of our partnership with the University of Bath & Epic. We have been able to refine & adapt the iPad version of the SOFA app developed by the Centre of Applied Autism Research at Bath so that it is downloadable and made an android version so that we now have a freely available tool for parents and practitioners alike. We feel very proud to have been involved in a project that will surely help support many children with autism around the world prepare for events or situations that are not the normal routine,” commented Paula Doumanov, Chief Services Officer at Inspire Foundation.

Professor Mark Brosnan, Director of the Centre for Applied Autism Research at the University of Bath added: “Research from our group provides evidence for the positive impact of using stories to help children on the autism spectrum understand situations that they find challenging. These stories are effective in both supporting appropriate behaviour and reducing anxiety. Parents and teachers enjoy using the app to write the stories and the children enjoy watching and listening to the stories on the app. Children on the autism spectrum, their parents, and their teachers have been central to developing the SOFA app. We are delighted to be able to launch the SOFA-app for free on World Disability Day. Research like this, applied in the right way, and made accessible to everyone through an app like SOFA, can make a real difference in people’s lives.”

“Figures indicating the number of people with autism in Malta are unclear, but based on UK statistical analysis, it is generally believed that as many as one per cent of the population may be affected. Social stories have been proven to be a wonderful tool which help prepare autistic persons for social situations. It was our wish to ensure that such a tool could be, for the first time, easily accessible to everyone and free of charge. This was made a reality through our partnership with the Inspire Foundation and the University of Bath and thanks to the power of connectivity,” said Kim Dalli, Communications Specialist at Epic.

The Inspire Foundation provides specialised programmes for children on the autism spectrum, including early intervention services. The educational and therapeutic programmes are accredited by the National Autistic Society (UK).  At present, 188 children make use of such programmes.

The application can be downloaded for free on the App Store and Google Play.