New app could be game changer for dyslexia

Dyslexia can be difficult and expensive to diagnose.

Researchers are tapping into the power of artificial intelligence to help diagnose dyslexia, a lifelong learning disorder that affects an estimated one in 10 Australians.

Dr Suryani Lim, from Federation University Australia’s School of Science, Engineering and Information Technology, has teamed up with industry partner Dystech in the development of a mobile app based on AI to assess whether a user has dyslexia.

Dyslexia can affect a person’s ability to read, spell and write, and can be difficult and expensive to diagnose, with many people not diagnosed until adulthood.

The partnership stemmed from a meeting at SummerTech LIVE, a Victorian Government initiative where industry is linked with students and academic staff to work together on innovations to solve real-world problems.

The relationship with Dystech, whose co-founder and CEO Hugo Richard has dyslexia and has been involved in several start-ups using AI technology, has already seen the development of an app that can diagnose dysgraphia, a condition that affects a person’s writing. The app can detect the condition with a 95 per cent success rate.

Dr Lim said there were no fast and affordable assessments available for dyslexia. Current diagnoses include pre-assessments followed by a full assessment which could cost as much $2,500.

“The money that you spend on diagnosis should be used for intervention,” Dr Lim said.

“Even today in Australia, it's very hard to get an early diagnosis – teachers are not trained for it, parents are certainly not trained for it, and even when you want to get a diagnosis in certain areas, especially regional areas, it can be very hard to get experts to assess you – the waiting lists can be very long.

“And I can tell you that in the bush, not many people are dyslexic. Why? Because they don’t get diagnosed. So with this tool everyone – even children living on remote farming stations – all they need is a mobile phone and internet access which they have via satellite and they can get themselves diagnosed and get the intervention they need.” Dr Suryani Lim

Dr Lim said her own experiences with a student several years ago who likely had dyslexia but was unable to afford the diagnosis, gave her the passion to pursue the project.

“I don't know how he did it but he managed to get to university but was unable to get any support for a learning plan because he didn't have the proper diagnosis,” Dr Lim said.

“And as an undergraduate student, I also knew a classmate who was dyslexic but was never diagnosed.

“So my own experiences tell me that many people deserve intervention but aren’t able to get it. When I met with Hugo and he talked about what he was working on, I thought this is fantastic and when I found out Hugo himself was dyslexic and he went through the same pain as many other students did, I thought this was a very personal pursuit.”

The app, which is still in development, will cost less than $100 and will work for all ages, but will be most effective when used by children at a learning-to-read age who can then access intervention services.

Dr Lim said using AI to develop the app meant relying on data and mathematical modelling, allowing the assessment to be more objective, so people with a similar condition will get a similar diagnosis. When the tool is as accurate as a human expert, it could become a game-changer.

“We know that in cancer research, with a skin cancer, you can take a photo of it and the AI can tell you whether it’s cancer or not with the same accuracy as a human. It may not be 100 per cent but the same as a human expert might diagnose,” Dr Lim said.

“What's so good about this is that we are also developing a tool where you can keep track of a student’s progress in their reading because, at the moment, if you see a speech therapist, there may not be the ability to regularly track how students have progressed.

“There may be infrequent evaluations but that may not be enough to work out whether students have progressed or not. But with the tool, we can keep track of how students improve on a more regular basis, maybe monthly, and that would give confidence to the therapists, the parents and the children themselves.”

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