Are apps the key to revolutionising autism learning?

By Philippa Roxby
Health reporter, BBC News


Technology has completely and utterly changed Veronica's life.

"She has gone from being a little girl who had no way of showing us how much she knew, to a little girl who now has a portable device she can laugh, play and engage with," says her mother Sam Rospigliosi, from Edinburgh.

"Who knows, she might even use it as her voice in the years ahead if she never learns how to speak again."

Veronica is six years old and severely affected by autism. She has significant learning difficulties and finds many social situations very difficult. She lost all her speech three years ago.

But in common with many other children like her, touchscreen computers have provided a way of learning and communicating that plays to her strengths.

As a result, devices like iPads are fast becoming a 'must-have' for many families of children with autism.

Richard Mills, head of research at Research Autism and the National Autistic Society, says the technology is an opportunity to take "a huge step forward in our understanding of autism".

"They allow us to have an insight into how children think. People with autism have a different kind of intelligence. Their visual memory is strong, so PCs are highly motivating."

Token incentive

When Veronica took part in the trial of a new iPad app called FindMe, designed by a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh, she loved the experience.

"Every time Veronica got an answer right, she got a token and she knew she had to get five tokens to get to the musicbox," her mum says.

"She was very motivated to answer the questions."

image captionThe FindMe app is just one of many that have been developed for children with severe autism

Aimed at non-verbal children from the age of 18 months upwards, the app encourages players to focus on other people and their needs, something people with autism find difficult.

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, a psychologist from the University of Edinburgh who led the app's development, says using touchscreen technology is crucial.

"A mouse and keyboard are not accessible for the youngest children. Early intervention is key for the most severely affected and iPads have allowed us to design for youngest ages.

"The app allows children to rehearse simple social skills over and over again. Practice makes perfect."

'Sensible approach'

Mills says he has been surprised by the progress that some students have made in schools using apps on touchscreen tablet computers.

But he is cautious too.

"Don't expect miracles. Technology can revolutionise the way children with autism communicate, but not in all cases.

"Different apps will work for different children with different needs.

"Independent touchscreen apps look very promising but they are sometimes just a slick way of using flash cards.

"Parents need to approach this sensibly and methodically."

He also recommends talking to the child's school to ensure that any apps being used for home learning are compatible with the school's approach.

And he says parents should always restrict the length of time children use computer devices, to make sure they do not become obsessed by them.

For Sam, her daughter's iPad is a huge positive which provides a route into learning that boosts her independence and her confidence.

And it has given her some street cred with other children too.

"It has given people respect for what Veronica can do and a tangible insight into what it must be like to have all these cognitive skills but no way of telling us about them."

Smart girl

Dr Fletcher-Watson puts the success of apps like hers down to the way children with autism like to learn.

"Family and friends reward children with smiles and encouraging comments, but autistic children don't understand these social reactions.

"PCs allow them to develop in a more motivational learning environment, which is comfortingly repetitive."

Veronica's peers are still too young to understand her differences, Sam says, but they are starting to see what she is capable of.

"As one little boy said on the bus last week after he saw how quickly she could complete a puzzle, 'Why doesn't she talk? Look, she's actually quite smart.'"

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