New autism research technology-based

By Elizabeth zinchuk

A university professor’s research could help those with autism communicate in a unique way.

Behavior analysis and therapy professor Ruth Anne Rehfeldt received grant funding for a research project to improve the communication skills of people with autism, a disorder which, according to the Autism Society, affects 1 percent of U.S. children and affects between 10-17 percent more people each year than it did previously. Rehfeldt’s program uses iPads and PC tablets to bridge the gap between caregivers and children with autism, and she is a part of a international group that will conduct the research project in Wales after the group secured $116,090 in Autism Speaks funding.

Rehfeldt said people with autism struggle to communicate effectively, a problem her research will alleviate.

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“It is one of the defining characteristics,” Rehfeldt said. “(Those with autism) have a hard time connecting socially and often act overly interested.”

Children with autism have varying levels of ability to communicate, she said.

“(Children with autism) usually have unusual social distance and skills ranging from highly functioning to completely non-verbal,” Rehfeldt said. “Our research will focus on the non-verbal.”

Rehfeldt said intellectual disabilities and autism sometimes do not go hand in hand, an intellectual disability is often present with non-verbal autism-affected children.

“I have done research with autism at an extreme level … We have developed skills so (children) can point at what they need and say what they prefer through an image or text representation,” she said.

Children with autism will be able to relay an object’s name through speech using the skills, she said.

Right now, caregivers will often have to carry around a large binder of images and texts, Rehfeldt said. Her research would put these resources in a more concise system, she said.

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“What makes our research unique is that we will make that whole protocol on a PC and iPad Tablet,” Rehfeldt said. “They would be taught to identify the image or text on that format.”

She said the iPads and tablets will allow greater information storage compared to the binder format.

Since tablet technology has become popular, she said, people with autism wouldn’t stand out while carrying their device.

“We think it is kind of cool, because since a lot of people are using this technology, they will look more normalized,” Rehfeldt said. “They look more grown up versus different.”

Robert Whelan, Rehfeldt’s colleague at the University of Vermont who will also participate in the program, said while the project will incorporate helping children to communicate through modern technology, kids will be able to go beyond using just phrases to express themselves.

“(Children) won’t just learn a set number of phrases but will be given the tools to combine a large number of words to make a vast array of sentences,” he said.

The tablets’ touch-screen interface is a way for autistic children to make requests via computer,” he said.

Whelan said early access to this technology could lighten some  children’s communication difficulties they may encounter throughout their lives.

“Early intervention is very beneficial for language development, so developing computerized tools could be a useful way of helping more individuals,” he said.

Valerie Boyer, university Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders director, said she is happy researchers are trying to keep up with technological changes.

“As we make technological advances, it is important to use those technological advantages toward individuals with all kinds of disabilities, including autism,” Boyer said. “(Rehfeldt’s) research is dealing with technology, which is a big deal for people with autism.”

Boyer said autism research is important as the number of those affected by the disorder continues to increase. Rehfeldt’s research will assist children with autism to communicate in a way that has been shown to help those the disorder has affected, she said.

“In terms with individuals with autism and the struggle they face, there are a lot of problems with building social relationships with peers and others,” Boyer said. “They sometimes struggle with some of the abstract aspects in communications, as in not being able to interpret non-verbal elements in conversation.”

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