FRIDAY, Aug. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Already embraced by millions
for their portability and ease-of-use, new Canadian research
suggests that smart technologies such as the iPad and iPod may also
serve as therapeutic tools for a very specific group: children with
Rhonda McEwen, an assistant professor with the Institute of
Communication Culture and Information Technology at the University
of Toronto Mississauga in Ontario, and her team found that such
devices can go a considerable distance in terms of helping these
kids significantly improve their ability to express themselves and
engage with others.
"I was surprised by some of the findings, and so were the teachers who participated in the research," McEwen said. "Using the touch devices, the study participants demonstrated knowledge gathered throughout their education that could not be elicited via traditional assessment means that rely on verbal communication. We can surmise that the receptive communication skills are more advanced than first thought," she said.
"Further, the role that the devices play in brokering peer-to-peer social interaction was unanticipated," McEwen added. "Finally, the progress in expressive communication among study participants exceeded expectations."
McEwen and her team were scheduled to discuss their findings
Friday at the American Psychological Association annual convention
Autism experts hailed the effort to unlock this technology's
"We have heard from many parents about how much their children enjoy mobile devices like the iPad, and how it is helping with learning and communication," noted Andy Shih, senior vice president of scientific affairs at Autism Speaks in New York City. "[So] we need more research in this rapidly developing field to understand how to maximize the benefits these devices can deliver to individuals and families living with autism."
McEwen and her colleagues set out to assess how off-the-shelf
consumer technology might be harnessed to boost communication and
social skills among children with autism.
In 2010, the Canadian team launched a case study in a downtown
Toronto public elementary school.
Investigators initially studied 12 children in six specific
classrooms, all of whom had been diagnosed as having autism
spectrum disorder and most of whom were classified as
Two hand-held touch technology devices currently sold by the
computer manufacturer Apple were introduced into the classroom
setting: the phone-sized iPod Touch and the tablet-sized iPad.
Costing roughly between $200 to $600 a piece, the mobile devices
incorporate brightly illuminated screens that display a multitude
of applications that range in price from free to less than $10
each. In turn, users can manipulate and respond to visual and audio
content by means of simple finger gestures, such as touching or
Over a six-month trial, the students became accustomed to using
the two devices.
The result: nine of the students showed a statistical
improvement ranging from mild to significant in their overall
communication skills. For example, when one boy took a visual
identification quiz on an iPad, his teacher realized the child knew
far more than the teacher had thought.
This meant that using the devices helped to boost motivation
among 75 percent of the children, while also increasing their
attention span and ability to interact socially. The researchers
now have detailed data on 36 students.
But why and how?
According to Brenda Smith Myles, an autism consultant for the
Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence in Columbus, Ohio, this
kind of readily accessible technology works by "evening the playing
field for individuals with autism."
"Many are nonverbal or low-verbal, and even those who are highly verbal often have a big degree of anxiety when interacting with someone," she noted. "They tend to like structure and predictability, and are largely visual learners. And these platforms and these apps address all three of those issues in a very nonstigmatizing and motivating way. They allow our folks to reach out in a way that is comfortable, so they can really communicate what they know," Myles explained.
"Of course, in addition, the technology is also cool, and automatically draws interest from other peers," said Myles, who was formally chief of programs for the Autism Society of America. "But certainly not all apps will work for all children, or will work in the same way. You do have to match the app to the learner, and each learner will be different. But generally speaking, these devices enhance skills and interest in communication. And they're easy to learn, easy to use and, best of all, low-cost."
The importance of the latter point is not lost on Dr. Jeffrey
Brosco, associate director of the Mailman Center for Child
Development at the University of Miami Miller School of
"Practically speaking, the older tech was extraordinarily expensive and cumbersome," he noted. "So this is a real advance, because you're not comparing the cost of an iPad and apps with books and other low-tech tools. You're really comparing these new devices with the old world of technology, in which machines that produce language cost thousands of dollars."
But what should parents make of this finding?
"Certainly, many families worry that if they rely too much on a communication device it will interfere with their autistic child's ability to talk," acknowledged Brosco. "But we find that it's actually a bridge to talking, because it gives these children a different mode with which to communicate. It helps them use language in a functional capacity, by giving them a way to get there faster and more efficiently. So, in general, I'd say this is a wonderful boon to families of autistic children."
The data and conclusions of research presented at meetings
should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed
For more on autism, visit