THE BLOG

Helping Autism With High Tech

02/25/2013 02:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

It is often stated that the latest and greatest consumer electronics have quickly eroded our social skills. While that may be true, these devices can have the opposite effect on children with autism by providing new ways to effectively teach social skills.

I've been fascinated by how consumer electronics can aid families and individuals with special needs since my undergraduate research project at Scripps College. In this case, I studied video-modeling, a technique that uses video to teach a child to observe and learn new skills or behaviors. Video-modeling actually builds on the strengths of a child with autism: visual processing as opposed to auditory processing used in didactic teaching methods. Studies have shown that children with autism learned skills quicker using video modeling than live modeling. It's a prime example of how technology can provide an economical, efficient and effective treatment that results in quick acquisition of behavior.

Technology is increasing by leaps and bounds, and more manufacturers understand that there is a market for people with autism, specifically parents. As this field develops, I hope that more parents and decision makers rely on the scientific method to determine whether these technologies can empirically show learning and growth across a spectrum of individuals.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a number of companies displayed new technologies not specifically designed for people with autism, but whose advanced capabilities could be applied to help treat people with these special needs. These include:

Big Bird's Words : Many parents of children with autism struggle with basic activities such as going to the grocery store. With Big Bird's Words, parents load a list of grocery items into the smartphone-compatible iPhone app, where their child then learns word identification during the grocery visit. Many individuals with autism have difficulty in less-structured environments such as grocery stores. With this application, families can create a formal structure by integrating their child into the grocery shopping experience, which will enhance vocabulary and transforms difficult daily tasks into something fun and interactive.

VivoPlay: I have heard hundreds of newly-diagnosed parents express their greatest concern for their child with autism: safety. For a special needs parent, ensuring your child is safe at all times is daunting. Many special needs children may not have developed sufficient safety skills or environmental awareness compared to typically developing peers. The VivoPlay is a child-friendly watch that uses GPS, WiFi and cell tower triangulation to consistently provide a child's location in real time on applicable smartphones. Unlike the Friend-Finder applications that provide cellular phone locations, this tracker is directly attached to a child's forearm. It is especially useful if a child has a tendency to run away. The watch also enables "Safe Zones" that notifies parents if children leave a designated area such as a friend's house or school grounds. For special needs children, safety skills should continue to be an important learning goal at school and home; however, this accessory should aid parents during this learning process.

nabi2: Many children know their way around an iPad, but for children with autism it's often difficult to regulate how much time they spend with electronics. The tablet has an integrated learning system that creates a learning environment surrounding technology. For those children who become fixated on just one game or one item, the nabi's "Chore List" and "Treasure Box" integrate incentives into a child's playtime. The nabi2 uses a basic token system in which predetermined chores are set and can be exchanged for new games or apps once completed. Also, the tablet incorporates strict parental controls that allow parents to use a timer that prompts children to hand the tablet over to a parent or sibling after x amount of minutes. This is great for teaching appropriate sharing and playing behavior. An added benefit: For every nabi2 that is purchased, one tablet will be donated to a family with a child with autism through the HollyRod Foundation.

NeuroSky : NeuroSky showcased "Focus Pocus," an interactive game that is controlled by player brainwaves. This product was originally designed to help children with concentration problems to improve their impulse control, attention span and memory, but this game soon became popular with adults as well. Although research has been limited on the use of neurofeedback for children with autism, the device utilizes EEG software known as a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) to read brain wave states, electrophysiological activity or metabolic rate. Research has shown that neurofeedback can be effective for increasing concentration in athletes, so I hope that research begins to addresses how this type of brain-monitoring system might help individuals on the autism spectrum. Until then, the device's effectiveness among the special needs population is subject to debate.

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