Treating Autism: There's an App for That

About one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, and new touchscreen applications offer help.

THE GIST

A range of touchscreen devices are helping special needs children communicate.

New applications that extend therapies are emerging.

A hackathon this fall will bring together autism experts and programmers to develop effective new applications.

For the one in every 110 children diagnosed with autism, connecting with the world around them can be an enormous challenge. Some are nonverbal and many have difficulties understanding, planning and remembering events throughout the day. But a new wave of computer applications for touchscreen devices are taking aim at these barriers.

"App development has really caught the imagination of the autism community," said Simon Wallace, European director of scientific development for the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks. Families, programmers and researchers are adapting smart devices for use by those with autism to enable support that's engaging, portable and often affordable.

In the past, non-verbal children with autism carried around bulky folders containing laminated pictures as a means to communicate, Wallace said. When speech therapists did introduce devices, they tended to be ancient, bulky and needed to be set up specifically for each use, says Pittsburgh-based computer scientist Ted Conley.

"Ubiquitous mobile devices can revolutionize therapy for disabled kids," Conley said. A year and a half ago he began developing a new set of applications to help his young son, who has cerebral palsy. His TapSpeak applications are designed for disabled children struggling to communicate, including those with autism.

TapSpeak uses iconography ubiquitous in special education programs so children don't need to learn a new set of symbols, Conley added. TapSpeak is one of several that Autism Speaks features on its website.

Apps can provide a visual timetable of the day's activities, directions on how to get places or reminders on when an activity should be completed, Wallace said. Ones such as iCommunicate and My Pictures Talk allow children and parents to capture pictures and store them in easily accessible libraries to foster communication through single words or phrases.

Others help in understanding what facial expressions mean, how to share information about oneself and how to behave in social situations, Wallace said. Most applications are available through the developers' websites and iTunes.

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This October, HP is organizing a hackathon called "Hacking Autism" to develop new applications. Unlike a traditional hackathon that limits programming to a set time period, the idea is that this will be more of a catalyst.

"We're crowdsourcing ideas directly from the families, researchers, scientists," said James Taylor, the director of HP's Innovation Program Office. A board of directors will evaluate submissions and pick at least five finalists. HP technologists will be volunteering time to create the actual programs, which will then be made available online.

Although developers are getting feedback on functionality and usefulness, the effectiveness of applications for people with autism spectrum disorders hasn't been scientifically studied yet, Wallace said.

Conley says the responses to TapSpeak have been positive, but he cautions that devices and apps can only do so much. "It's also the parents, the therapists, the whole therapy ecosystem that makes things work for kids."