University of Kansas researchers developing app for children with autism

Americas, August 1 2013

LAWRENCE: University of Kansas researchers will train preschoolers with autism and their classmates to use an iPad voice output app to determine whether the technology can improve the deficits in communication, social reciprocity and play skills typical of children on the autism spectrum.

Kathy Thiemann-Bourque, University of Kansas assistant research professor at the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City, Kan., will direct the four-year study, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Communication Intervention for Preschoolers Learning to use AAC (CI-PAAC).

Dylan Mast, who has autism, uses adaptive technologies like the Accent 1000 to communicate more freely.

Dylan Mast, who has autism, uses adaptive technologies like the Accent 1000 to communicate more freely. Photo: Dell

“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.”

Thiemann-Bourque has examined both peer training and direct teaching strategies to increase social communication between children with autism and their classmates without disabilities. She has been successful in training peers to be responsive communication partners and to use the same AAC system as their classmates with autism in a previous study.

 “Integrating both of these approaches seemed to be a logical and innovative next step to advance intervention research for this population,” she said.

 A voice output app will be used as a speech-generating device programmed to meet the individual needs of each child with autism. The app will quickly display pictures and photographs taken at home and school, for example, so that children can press them to express wants and needs, greet others and make comments to facilitate typical preschool communication.

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

After the initial staff training, half of the children with autism will be randomly assigned to an intervention condition that incorporates additional teaching strategies using the iPad app, and the other half will be assigned to a control condition with followup observations in the classroom. The intervention will be implemented for one school year.

 Nancy Brady, associate professor at the KU Life Span Institute and study co-investigator, directed the development of the Communication Complexity Scale in 2012. The CCS will be modified for this study to measure changes in the children’s’ complexity of prelinguistic and early linguistic communication with peer partners. CI-PAAC will also measure changes in peer-oriented play based on commonly used developmental play categories and behaviors.

 The study will produce a manual for treatment implementation, as will a compilation of videos for parent and teacher training.

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