App looks to increase socialization between autistic children and peers

An iPad voice output app is being developed by University of Kansas researchers under a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in order to determine if the technology is effective in improving the social skills of children with autism, according to an announcement.

As part of the four-year study, preschoolers with autism and their classmates will use the voice output app to display pictures and photographs taken at home and school, so that children can press them to express wants and needs, greet others and make comments to facilitate typical preschool communication. Forty-eight preschool children with autism who are nonverbal or minimally verbal, 48 early education school staff and 144 peers without disabilities were recruited for the study, which began July 1.

"Many young children with autism have complex communication needs but do not develop functional speech," said Kathy Thiemann-Bourque, University of Kansas assistant research professor at the Juniper Gardens Children's Project in Kansas City, Kan., in a written statement. "AAC--alternative and augmentative communication--can allow them to communicate independently, but most studies that report success involve communicating with adults, not with peers."

After the initial staff training, half of the children with autism will be randomly assigned to an intervention condition that incorporates additional teaching strategies using the iPad app, and the other half will be assigned to a control condition with follow-up observations in the classroom. The intervention will be implemented for one school year.

In related news, University of Edinburgh researchers have combined gaming with autism research in a new app, FindMe, that they say could help autistic children as young as 18 months. Touchscreens, tablets and other mobile technologies already were known to interest autistic children, but researchers say FindMe is the first game to directly engage their specific learning style, and use that engagement to build social skills.

The ultimate goal is to have children practice very simple social skills repetitively. The tablet itself is key to the app, because autistic children often cannot use a mouse and keyboard, or a game control console.

To learn more:
- read the announcement