Can an iPad app help preschoolers with autism talk and play with their classmates?

Can an iPad app help preschoolers with autism talk and play with their classmates?

LSI scientist Kathy Thiemann-Bourque has approached the problem of the deficits in the social communication of children with autism from many directions. She developed and tested both peer training and teaching strategies to increase social communication between children with autism and their classmates.

In previous studies, she succeeded in training typically developing children to be responsive communication partners and to use the same communication system as their classmates with autism.

Now, she’s bringing these together with the help of a picture communication–voice output app on iPad in a newly funded $1.2 million grant.

So Much 2 Say© will be used as a speech-generating device that will be programmed to meet the individual needs of each child with autism.

The iPad app will allow children to quickly tap images or “cards” that the app verbalizes to express wants and needs, greet others and make comments typical of preschool communication. The images can even be personal photographs taken at a child’s home or school, for example.

“Many young children with autism have complex communication needs but do not develop functional speech,” said Thiemann-Bourque. “AAC— alternative and augmentative communication—can allow them to communicate independently, but most studies that report success involve communicating with adults, not with peers.”

The KU study will recruit 48 preschool children with autism who are nonverbal or minimally verbal, 48 early education school sta and 144 peers without disabilities (each child with autism will have three peer partners) from the greater Kansas City area and Lawrence school districts for the study, which began July 1. The intervention will be implemented for one school year.

The unique Communication Complexity Scale, that measures changes in communication by people who are non-verbal or minimally verbal, unveiled by study co-director Nancy Brady in 2012, will measure changes in the complexity of children’s prelinguistic and early linguistic communication and play with their peers based on commonly used developmental play categories and behaviors.

The study will produce a manual for clinicians and videos for parents and teacher training.