Already embraced by millions for their portability and ease-of-use, new Canadian research suggests that smart technologies such as the iPad and iPod may also serve as therapeutic tools for a very specific group: children with autism.
Rhonda McEwen, an assistant professor with the Institute of Communication Culture and Information Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga in Ontario, and her team found that such devices can go a considerable distance in terms of helping these kids significantly improve their ability to express themselves and engage with others.
"I was surprised by some of the findings, and so were the teachers who participated in the research," McEwen said. "Using the touch devices, the study participants demonstrated knowledge gathered throughout their education that could not be elicited via traditional assessment means that rely on verbal communication. We can surmise that the receptive communication skills are more advanced than first thought," she said.
"Further, the role that the devices play in brokering peer-to-peer social interaction was unanticipated," McEwen added. "Finally, the progress in expressive communication among study participants exceeded expectations."
Feedback from parents
McEwen and her team were scheduled to discuss their findings Friday at the American Psychological Association annual convention in Honolulu.
Autism experts hailed the effort to unlock this technology's potential.
"We have heard from many parents about how much their children enjoy mobile devices like the iPad, and how it is helping with learning and communication," noted Andy Shih, senior vice president of scientific affairs at Autism Speaks in New York City. "[So] we need more research in this rapidly developing field to understand how to maximize the benefits these devices can deliver to individuals and families living with autism."
Boosting social skills
McEwen and her colleagues set out to assess how off-the-shelf consumer technology might be harnessed to boost communication and social skills among children with autism.
In 2010, the Canadian team launched a case study in a downtown Toronto public elementary school.
Investigators initially studied 12 children in six specific classrooms, all of whom had been diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder and most of whom were classified as "nonverbal".
Two hand-held touch technology devices currently sold by the computer manufacturer Apple were introduced into the classroom setting: the phone-sized iPod Touch and the tablet-sized iPad.
Costing roughly between $200 to $600 a piece, the mobile devices incorporate brightly illuminated screens that display a multitude of applications that range in price from free to less than $10 each. In turn, users can manipulate and respond to visual and audio content by means of simple finger gestures, such as touching or swiping.
Over a six-month trial, the students became accustomed to using the two devices.
The result: nine of the students showed a statistical improvement ranging from mild to significant in their overall communication skills. For example, when one boy took a visual identification quiz on an iPad, his teacher realized the child knew far more than previously thought.
This meant that using the devices helped to boost motivation among 75% of the children, while also increasing their attention span and ability to interact socially. The researchers now have detailed data on 36 students.
According to Brenda Smith Myles, an autism consultant for the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence in Columbus, Ohio, this kind of readily accessible technology works by "evening the playing field for individuals with autism".
"Many are nonverbal or low-verbal, and even those who are highly verbal often have a big degree of anxiety when interacting with someone," she noted. "They tend to like structure and predictability, and are largely visual learners. And these platforms and these apps address all three of those issues in a very nonstigmatising and motivating way. They allow our folks to reach out in a way that is comfortable, so they can really communicate what they know," Myles explained.
Technology is cool
"Of course, in addition, the technology is also cool, and automatically draws interest from other peers," said Myles, who was formally chief of programs for the Autism Society of America. "But certainly not all apps will work for all children, or will work in the same way. You do have to match the app to the learner, and each learner will be different. But generally speaking, these devices enhance skills and interest in communication. And they're easy to learn, easy to use and, best of all, low-cost."
The importance of the latter point is not lost on Dr Jeffrey Brosco, associate director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"Practically speaking, the older tech was extraordinarily expensive and cumbersome," he noted. "So this is a real advance, because you're not comparing the cost of an iPad and apps with books and other low-tech tools. You're really comparing these new devices with the old world of technology, in which machines that produce language cost thousands of dollars."
"Certainly, many families worry that if they rely too much on a communication device it will interfere with their autistic child's ability to talk," acknowledged Brosco. "But we find that it's actually a bridge to talking, because it gives these children a different mode with which to communicate. It helps them use language in a functional capacity, by giving them a way to get there faster and more efficiently. So, in general, I'd say this is a wonderful boon to families of autistic children."
The data and conclusions of research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For more on autism, visit Autism Speaks.