Saturday, August 3, 2013

KU researchers look to tablet apps to help children with autism develop communication skills

By BEN UNGLESBEE, The Lawrence Journal-World

LAWRENCE, KAN. --- Of the hundreds of thousands of apps available for the iPad, many hold limited social value at best. Some, however, could help improve the lives of children with autism and other communication disorders.

Kathy Thiemann-Bourque, an assistant professor at Kansas University, will head a research team that has won a $1.2 million grant to test the effectiveness of apps designed to help children with autism communicate through the interaction of pictures and spoken words.

Thiemann-Borque won approval today from the Lawrence and North Kansas City school districts to work with students and teachers in the district, and they have an application pending with the Olathe school district.

Several studies and anecdotal information have indicated that autistic children seem to communicate more readily using iPads and other tablet devices. Some experts theorize that the ability to directly interact with the devices through touch and pictures is an aid to communication for children with limited communication skills.

Autism-related apps already are available, but studies done on them up to this point mostly have focused on children's ability to use them to communicate with adults. Thiemann-Borque and her team want to study whether the apps can help children better work and play with their peers in school.

The grant, awarded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, will fund a study of 48 preschool-aged children with autism who are nonverbal or minimally verbal. In addition, the team will train teachers and peers without disabilities to use the apps. 

The apps are designed to help children with communication disorders develop verbal communication skills by linking pictures to spoken words through the tablet's touchscreen.

The apps available to the research team include some that contain pictures or allow users add new photographs to the device. 

These might be photos of a playground, food or the student's peers. By touching the picture, the user triggers a voice that verbalizes an object or action. Students can then use the app, for example, to express desire for a snack or a turn at a piece of playground equipment. From there, users can add images and complexity to the interface.

Once students progress in expressing themselves, Thiemann-Borque's hope is that the apps can then help them better develop receptive communication skills, which can be an especially difficult challenge for children with autism. The goal is for small groups of students to be able to use the device to communicate with each other.

Thiemann-Borque said the benefit of the technology is its affordability and accessibility to parents. Prior to the introduction of the iPad and other tablets a few years ago, technology existed to helped children with communication disorders use pictures to develop verbal skills, but those specialized devices could cost as much as $4,000.

"Families just couldn't afford them," she said.

The tablet apps also are easier to use and can be personalized by adding photographs of familiar faces and the user's own voice. Since similar apps were first developed, digital voice technology also has come a long way. Some early versions had fairly robotic voices, Thiemann-Borque said.

Both the study and the apps hold the promise to help students with autism gain stronger language skills and have more fun on the playground and in school.

"We're excited about it. It's a great project. We're happy to be funded," said Thiemann-Borque, whose team will be visiting the classrooms weekly to observe, coach, consult and collect data. "It's competitive out there."