Researchers build iPad app around autism skills

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 technology could be "a huge step forward in our understanding of autism," Richard Mills, head of research at Research Autism and the National Autistic Society, tells BBC News. "They allow us to have an insight into how children think. People with autism have a different kind of intelligence. Their visual memory is strong, so PCs are highly motivating."

Like most games for the very young, FindMe is simple. The child is directed to find the person in the scene on the screen. For a non-autistic child this should be a simple visual exercise. For autistic children, however, non-human objects, and other distractions, can make it difficult for them to "see" the person.

With each correct identification, the child earns a reward of a cartoon animation sequence. Each level becomes more complex, with more obstructions to the person on the screen, and more difficulty picking the person out of the scene. The ultimate goal is to have children practice very simple social skills repetitively, the app's creators say.

The tablet itself is key to the app, because autistic children often cannot use a mouse and keyboard, or a game control console, says Sue Fletcher-Watson, a university psychologist and FindMe's development leader. "A mouse and keyboard are not accessible for the youngest children. Early intervention is key for the most severely affected and iPads have allowed us to design for youngest ages."

Initial response from parents has been positive, according to research site So much so that the app is set for a clinical trial of 60 children that will begin in April. It's part of a larger ongoing university project, called Click-East, to use new technologies to help autistic individuals.

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