Dr Ehud Reiter was watching his two-year-old son Moshe play with a child six months younger when he realised that something was not quite right.
“The other boy, Sidney, was talking much more than Moshe. Up till then, Moshe had always been ahead of him. So we knew there was something really wrong.”
Reiter sighs and pauses as he recalls that terrible moment in 2000. It was a year later that he and his wife Ann finally received the dreadful news that Moshe had full-blown autism and would need care for the rest of his life.
“It took a long time for the NHS to do a proper diagnosis,” he says. “The first thing we wanted was a hearing test and that took six months to get done, not because there was a queue, but because of administrative incompetence and indifference. The whole thing was pretty devastating because there was our bright little boy who had been talking.”
Moshe began to attend Camphill School in the Reiter family’s home city of Aberdeen. He uses picture cards and gestures to express himself, but cannot carry on a conversation.
“It’s just heartbreaking not being able to communicate with him,” says Reiter. “He can do simple things, he can indicate he wants some cornflakes for breakfast, but he can’t tell us what he’s feeling, what he likes, what he’s done.”
Reiter, an Israeli-born American national, is a researcher in computer science at the University of Aberdeen, specialising in computer systems that can create English language summaries of complicated sets of information.
So given his field, it was not long before he began to play around with ideas of how his research could help at home.
On a visit to Dundee University, he became familiar with a research group specialising in communication tools for special needs children. He began to collaborate with the Dundee group, using his technology to gather data about the children and help them to tell their stories more easily.
With funding from the charity, Capability Scotland, a project called “How was School Today?” was launched.
Working with a group of children with cerebral palsy from Corseford School in Renfrewshire near Glasgow, Reiter has developed software to work with sensors, swipe cards and a recording device to gather information on what the children experience in the course of a day.
The software then generates natural language so the children can tell their parents about their day when they get home.
“The system is designed to allow children to easily talk about their school day and quickly answer questions,” says Reiter. “Of course I had a special interest. The concept would work for autistic kids, but the details would be different depending on the impairment. Kids with cerebral palsy suffer largely a motor impairment, whereas with Moshe it’s cognitive, not motor.”
The emphasis is currently on getting it right for the children with cerebral palsy. However, Moshe may well experience the benefit of his father’s work. Reiter estimates that a prototype for autistic children could be being tested within five years.
In the meantime, he recognises the 25-strong Aberdeen Jewish community — of which he is chairman — has been a great help to his family: “The people here have been really supportive,” he says. He and his wife Ann are regular attenders at the local synagogue along with Moshe’s two sisters Miriam (aged 13) and Naomi (8.
“What’s really nice is that we can bring Moshe along to services and events,” he adds. “He’s an 11-year-old who acts like a three-year-old, so in a lot of contexts you don’t really feel comfortable. But at shul, everyone knows him and they know what he’s like, so if he starts acting in an unusual way it’s not a problem. It’s so nice to have that, that we can bring him here.
“I think the more he can interact with people, socialise, the better for him, the happier he’ll be — and the happier we’ll be.”