A new mobile app, SOFA, which is launched today, aims at making life easier for people on the autism spectrum, their relatives and caregivers.

The SOFA App (Stories Online for Autism) is a project created by the University of Bath with support from the Inspire Foundation, Epic and the University of Malta. The mobile application, which is available free of charge, runs on Android and iOS smartphones and tablets and was developed by Deloitte Digital.

The aim behind it is to support children on the autism spectrum to better understand the social world through specially developed stories. Autism is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment. Worldwide, it is estimated that one in 54 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Storytelling via the app

The stories in the SOFA app are short descriptions of a particular event, situation or activity and can be personalised for each child. They give examples of what children on the autism spectrum can expect, and how best to prepare, for a wide range of everyday situations. This can help support children on the autism spectrum for situations which are new or outside normal routine. These stories use sequencing to explain what comes next in a series of activities, which has been shown to increase understanding and help reduce anxiety.

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

Four peer-reviewed journal articles from academics in the Centre for Applied Autism Research provide evidence that the SOFA app is effective in supporting children on the autism spectrum.

App development

The app was initially developed by a research team based within the Centre of Applied Autism Research in collaboration with a number of local schools for children on the autism spectrum and families from the autism community. Its development was made possible through the joint collaboration of the Inspire Foundation and Epic, formerly known as the Vodafone Malta Foundation.

Paula Doumanov, Chief Services Officer at Inspire Foundation explained: “This project has been two 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 and 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 on the autism spectrum around the world prepare for events or situations that are not the normal routine.”

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.

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 International Day of People with Disabilities. Research like this, applied in the right way, and made accessible to everyone can make a real difference in people's lives."

Kim Dalli, Communications Specialist at Epic said: "Figures indicating the number of people on the autism spectrum in Malta are unclear, but based on UK statistical analysis, it is generally believed that as many as one to two per cent of the population may have the condition. Stories have been proven to be a wonderful tool which help prepare people on the autism spectrum 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.”

CAAR's research ethos

The development of SOFA embodies the ethos of the Centre for Applied Autism Research at Bath. Over the past five years CAAR has defined itself not just for conducting world-leading research for and with the autistic community, but for the practical applications it has developed to better support individuals on the autism spectrum and their families.

This includes:

  • CAAR's highly successful free massive open online courses (MOOCs) designed to help parents and carers of those on the autism spectrum; the most recent run of one of these attracted 30,000 learners from around the world (our most popular-ever MOOC);
  • CAAR's free autism summer schools and autism employment schools, now helping young people on the autism spectrum to transition from school to university and into the workplace. The most recent online version of this ran in November 2020 attracting 30 attendees.
  • CAAR's collaboration with multiple organisations in the UK and beyond to improve workplace practice towards autism, including the establishment of a new Ambassadors for Autism scheme – something which the University is itself now benefiting from.

For these efforts and many more, CAAR was included last year in Universities UK’s #MadeAtUni campaign – an initiative celebrating the life-changing impacts University research is making across society.