Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Autism, there is an app for that!

Developers dive in to create a wealth of autism apps

Parents, therapists and developers are eager to tap into what they view as a powerful tool to reach people with autism (http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/30/business/la-fi-apple-autism-20130430).

Andy Shih, senior vice president for scientific affairs at Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization based in New York, helped organize a "hacking autism" event in San Francisco that drew 135 apps developers. Over the course of 24 hours, teams built prototypes for more than a dozen apps.

Nearly 1,500 autism apps are available in Apple's App Store.

Even as researchers just begin the process of trying to determine how effective such technologies are, parents, therapists and developers are racing ahead in their attempts to tap into what they view as a powerful tool to reach people with autism.

The range of these apps has expanded well beyond the initial focus of helping people with autism communicate and improve social skills to learning about emotions and delivering basic educational lessons in a format that's better suited to autistic learners, Shih said.

Howard Shane, director of the Center for Communication Enhancement and the Autism Language Program at Children's Hospital Boston, said while he's eager to see more studies, his experience with the iPad and autistic children has been so overwhelmingly positive that he's content to push forward with finding new and better ways to use it.

"The clinical evidence is still emerging," Shane said. "But the excitement and interest in these technologies exists because they are working."

Bill Thompson, a school psychologist at the Orange County Department of Education, who wrote some of the first autism apps, said he's trying to find ways to make their use more effective. Many educators and parents, for instance, like the iPad and other mobile gadgets simply because they can be used as a powerful reward to reinforce a desired behavior. Complete a task, get some iPad time.

That's understandable considering that it often can be hard to find rewards that motivate some autistic children. But Thompson said he'd like more of the iPad time used for educational purposes, rather than just getting bonus Angry Birds time. For instance, Thompson has created a system in which a classroom with many kids on the autistic spectrum use iPads that can be beamed onto a large-screen TV using an Apple TV unit to enable them to communicate with each other in ways they might not otherwise.

Finding rewards that motivate autistic children, that’s the challenge, that’s the key. You cannot teach if you cannot motivate. Think about yourself sitting in a boring class, listening to a boring teacher talking about a topic you couldn’t care less about. Your mind will be focused on anything but the class. And you won’t remember anything later. That’s what happens to our kids, in particular those with special needs. And we know that all kind of challenging behaviors emerge when the kids are bored, or worse, when we force them to work on non-preferred activities. That is the challenge and that is the meaning of “special” in “Special Education.”

And it is not only the rewards that motivate. We must find and use powerful tools to reach people with autism. The activity has to be stimulating enough to motivate them. If we know that they can focus and concentrate when they are watching TV or playing video games, we must use the same technology to teach.

There is no time to waste. Every awaking moment in the lives of these kids is precious. They are so behind that it is immoral, I believe, to waste time with ineffective instructional strategies.

Motivate and you’ll get the response you want. McDonalds knows that. Kids TV channels know that. Video games builders know that. When are we, parents, therapists, “special educators” going to know that?

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

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