AUBURN – Researchers in Auburn University’s College of Education, along with Birmingham-based PUSH Product Design, are designing Apple iPad applications to improve the social and communications skills of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
In June, Scott Renner and Margaret Flores will begin working with 10 students between the ages of four and 14 diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The researchers will evaluate the children’s social and communication skills, teach them how to use the iPads and then observe and assess improvement of those skills in a classroom setting.
The team’s proposal is one of only four this year to receive a $20,000 Tech in the Works grant from the National Center for Technology Innovation. The awards honor researchers and vendors who work together to examine ways in which innovative assistive technologies can benefit students with special needs. The proposal is “Touching Lives and Creating Abilities: Social and Communication Skills with the iPad.”
Renner is coordinator of assistive technology and Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, Counseling/School Psychology. Both hold leadership positions in the university’s new Center for Disability Research Service.
PUSH Product Design has developed communications software that may be especially helpful to children with limited verbal skills. Children will be able to express themselves through touch-activated voice recordings and to improve social interactions through video storytelling. Some of the children who will use the devices have vocabularies of 10 words or less.
Applications will include settings for home, school, shopping, restaurants, the beach, the movies and the playground. For example, to express a desire to eat, a child can touch icons to convey food preference. One recording states: “I want a snack. I want pretzels.”
The video storytelling application is designed to help children understand their own behavior. The stories describe situations in which a student might need help and suggest appropriate reactions.
Flores wants to compare the effectiveness of using the iPad with the more traditional use of picture cards. She says that although picture cards have proved effective and they help language development, the iPad is more portable and easily customized.
Renner says cost is a significant advantage of the iPad over other high-tech options. Some communications devices designed for non-verbal children can cost several thousand dollars. An iPad, loaded with individually tailored applications, sells for a fraction of the cost of many alternatives.