A student has developed a tutorial designed to help her autistic children manage their emotions while learning mathematics.
This tutorial designed by Aydée Liza Mondragón is an interactive math game involving an avatar named Jessie, who speaks to the child and provides motivation and encouragement.
“I have guided many doctoral students throughout my career, but Aydée Liza Mondragón stands out from the crowd. This student has impressed me more than any other by her courage and perseverance. I salute her for having completed her doctoral thesis in Cognitive Informatics—with a Citation of Excellence—while caring for her three autistic children,” says Professor Roger Nkambou from the Department of Computer Science, who supervised Aydée Liza Mondragón in collaboration with his colleague Pierre Poirier, Professor of Philosophy.
“My three children were my source of inspiration to take on this thesis,” the graduate admits. “Without them, I would never have succeeded.”
For her doctoral research, Mondragón developed an intelligent tutorial system, or Integrated Specialized Learning Application (ISLA), to help autistic children manage their emotions in a mathematical learning context focused on addition operations. This system aims to remedy a lack of individualized intervention in specialized education, especially for children with pervasive developmental disorders.
The Colombian-born researcher moved to Montreal 30 years ago, in her teenage years. Her undergraduate and Master’s studies at HEC Montréal and McGill University allowed her to develop expertise in information technology and communications, and gave her the opportunity to work in business re-engineering for the food industry.
Three autism diagnoses
Once she had completed her Master’s degree, Aydée Liza Mondragón was informed that her second son, aged three at the time, had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Later, her two-year-old daughter received the same diagnosis. Three years after this, in 2010, her eldest son was diagnosed with autism. “My son would say ‘I don’t understand the words, it’s all too fast. I would like to have the brain of a turtle.’ I had feelings of failure and powerlessness. Nonetheless, I decided to fight for my children’s education.”
The researcher enrolled her second son in a specialized language development program and in the Applied Behavioural Analysis (APA) program, as his case was more severe. “He was often restless, as well as sensitive to noise and light,” says Mondragón. “When he was six years old, his French vocabulary was no higher than 15 words. He began to speak at the age of eight, but only in English.”
Mondragón observed her son’s behaviour and noticed that he was able to communicate visually and had a visual type of intelligence and memory. “I used my technology skills to develop an application that would help him learn English through images.”
Subsequently, Mondragón decided to enrol in UQAM’S specialized graduate degree in tutorial intervention for students with a pervasive developmental disorder, the “Diplôme d'études supérieures spécialisées en intervention éducative auprès d'élèves ayant un trouble envahissant du développement,” before starting her doctoral studies in Cognitive Informatics. “I went back to school in order to better understand autism and develop tools that will help my children,” she says.
A friend named Jessie
The researcher’s tutorial system provides a support model that takes the child’s cognitive and emotional profile into account, while helping him or her focus on the learning experience. “The ISLA system is an interactive math game including an avatar named Jessie, who speaks to the child and provides motivation and encouragement,” says Aydée Liza Mondragón. “Each correct answer earns points or a reward.”
“Jessie’s behaviour is based on intervention theories and practices with autistic children,” says Roger Nkambou. “Her reactions are adapted to the child’s emotional state; after collecting data on his or her facial expression, eyes, and gestures, she suggests appropriate learning activities.”
The system was tested with two groups of autistic children, made up of boys and girls aged 6 to 12 who were recruited in specialized intervention centres. “Children from the first group interacted with Jessie, and those in the second group had no contact with the avatar. The second group could not complete the game, whereas the first group succeeded,” Mondragón explains. “The statistical analysis dispels all doubt about the importance of a learning companion like Jessie,” says Roger Nkambou. “The system allows autistic children to benefit from special attention and individualized support.”
Fine-tuning the system
In 2016, Aydée Liza Mondragón founded Masesté Solutions to develop cutting-edge technologies in the realm of specialized education. Marketing the ISLA system is also one of its goals.
The graduate is currently working on prototype development and fine-tuning the avatar. According to Roger Nkambou, “Liza has been solicited by researchers from North Carolina and the Université de Montréal. She is considering a second test phase on a larger scale, which could be interesting to the Ministry of Education.”
Mondragón is proud of how far her children have come—each of them is now enrolled in regular classes. “My eldest son is now in Secondary 4. He scored 98% and 95% on his last French and math exams. My daughter is in sixth grade and speaks French, English and Spanish. As for my second son, his behaviour has greatly improved. For me, what matters most is that my children become independent and able to reach their maximum potential in a field of their choice.”
Writer for the Actualités UQAM website and for INTER