Monday, January 16, 2012

Autism: Are apps the key to revolutionising learning?

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.

Find Me App Demo from Interface3 on Vimeo.

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."

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."

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