By Amanda Gardner
FRIDAY, June 18 (HealthDay News) -- From iPods to robots to avatars, people with autism are increasingly taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies to improve their social skills and, in the process, break the isolation of their condition.
"We use them as a bridge to develop communication skills people with autism don't have, like social referencing [for example, making eye contact]," explained Katharina Boser, president of Individual Differences in Learning of Howard County, Maryland, and co-chair of the Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) committee at one of the nation's leading autism advocacy groups, Autism Speaks. "There are a range of devices that can support people at different levels," she said.
Several of these technologies were demonstrated recently at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Philadelphia, which was sponsored by Autism Speaks and the International Society for Autism Research.
Among other things, the very predictability of robots, toys and computer-generated avatars are a low-threat way for autistic children to learn new skills, Boser explained.
"People are unpredictable," she said. "Robots are more predictable. They're not going to jump at you like a person might."
Furthermore, "people with autism are hugely engaged by things, objects," Boser added. "It's a big motivator."
In that respect, a child who won't engage with a person might just engage with a "robot that cares," she explained. A toy dinosaur that nods his head and purrs when he's stroked is "mechanical and that will help people smile and engage in a way they normally wouldn't with people," Boser said.
Experts have noted that with this type of practice, children with autism can begin looking at a parent or a peer when speaking with them.
For example, a turtle named "Crush," part of the "Turtle Talk with Crush" interactive attraction featured at several Disney theme parks, has turned out to be helpful for low-verbal, low-functioning kids, Boser said. After participating in a show and a "meet and greet," children were more likely to smile, repeat words uttered by Crush, clap and laugh, according to a study presented at IMFAR.
People with Asperger's syndrome (on the "lighter" end of the autism disorders spectrum) can also now wear a sensor on their wrist that measures their heart rate and gives them concrete data on their internal, physical state. According to Boser, this can provide an opportunity to connect their physical response (which is literal and concrete and therefore understandable to people with Asperger's) with their feelings, and start to understand which behaviors are appropriate for different situations.
"It helps them become more mindful about what they do," Boser said.
Another innovation: A GPS mobile "app" that acts as a "proximity indicator," helping autistic people understand how close they can appropriately stand next to another person if they're a friend or if they're someone less familiar.
G. Richmond Mancil, executive director of the Kentucky Autism Training Center at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville, has also adapted an iPod touch to help upper elementary, middle school and high school students with autism communicate better.
The device uses pictures of everyday things to help the person better communicate. Mancil is now expanding the application to include videos of how one is supposed to interact in particular situations.
Kids who used the device had less screaming, hitting, biting and other behaviors associated with frustration, he said.
The iPod has the added advantage of the "coolness factor," Mancil pointed out. "It's much more socially acceptable."
There's more on autism at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
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