Sal McKeown reports from Autech 2015, a new event to showcase some of the key developments in technology for children and young people with autism

Technology for children with autism has long been a thorny area with a strong and vocal body of opinion that holds that technology is not a good idea. In fact some commentators argue that technology encourages and reinforces ‘autistic behaviour’ such as lack of eye contact or poor social interaction.

Autech 2015, run by the Wirral Autistic Society (now rebranded as Autism Together) sought to challenge this. Held earlier this month at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United football team, it brought together teachers, parents, therapists, researchers and technologists to explore and discuss some of the recent development in technology for children on the autism spectrum.


Dr Ben Robins of the University of Hertfordshire introduces Kaspar the robot to a conference delegate

Dr Ben Robins of the University of Hertfordshire introduces Kaspar the robot to a conference delegate

KASPAR, a child-sized humanoid social robot, opened the conference alongside Dr Ben Robins, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. Dr Robins is running several long-term international studies with schools and medical centres involving KASPAR .

Case-study videos showed children who experienced social isolation or cognitive difficulties playing with KASPAR. The children were shown engaged in collaborative play, turn taking, and becoming more confident communicators. If the child played gently the robot would say, ‘That feels nice’; if the play became more aggressive, it would say, ‘Ouch you’re hurting me!’

The plus side of KASPAR is that it seems to help children to make better eye contact so children start to look more closely at faces and respond. One child, who Dr Robins says was apparently non-verbal, spoke during filming. At present, however, the evidence is anecdotal and small scale. Consequently the project is looking to raise £5 million so that it can create more robots to use in schools and homes so researchers can collect more data and extend the project to include occupational therapists.

Many of the delegates were intrigued by the possibilities offered by this very striking technology but several parents pointed out that KASPAR resembles the ‘Good Guy’ doll taken over by the spirit of Chucky in the Child’s Play series of horror films, and wondered if they would feel comfortable having him in their homes.

Hand-flapping and body-rocking are key characteristics of autistic behaviour and telemetrics may have a role to play in explaining these behaviours. Dr Matthew Goodwin, Interdisciplinary Assistant Professor at the College of Computers and Information Science, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, pointed out that in order to identify the link between mental state and physical reactions, professionals often take children to a hospital or other unfamiliar place, attach intrusive wires and sensors to their bodies, video them and then wonder why they are ‘non-compliant’.

Biometric wearables, such as the Embrace watch or vests, can measure temperature, breathing and heart rate over long periods of time in the real world, not just in a medical setting. ‘Most of the studies have involved young people with a normal IQ and good verbal skills,’ says Goodwin. ‘Those most severely impaired are the ones we know least about and there are no benefits to assessing them in an artificial setting.’

The research hopes to identify triggers and so be able to predict when children are likely to become very stressed or have a ‘melt down’. Hopefully it will also reveal whether the behaviours are biological in origin, which would suggest the need for drugs or other medical interventions, or if they are a reaction to environmental factors which would indicate the need for a behavioural intervention. The wristbands should be available commercially within three years.

Brain in Hand

Bethan Jones, who has Asperger's syndrome, demonstrates Brain in Hand, an app which helps her manage day-to-day life

Bethany Jones, who has Asperger’s syndrome, demonstrates Brain in Hand, an app which helps her manage day-to-day life

While KASPAR and biometrics are specialist technologies, there were examples of apps and software for smartphones and tablets. Brain In Hand’s Chief Executive David Fry joked that the software features, ‘Lots of very expensive technology – most of it provided courtesy of Google and Apple.’

Brain In Hand is cloud-based and works on handhelds and computers and encourages people with autism to be more independent and to take more control of their lives. Users plan out their week highlighting potential stress points and thinking about strategies to help them cope. Part of the value of Brain In Hand is that it has led to better discussions of problems and coping strategies between the user and their key worker. Julie from the Wirral is 25 and studying for her Masters degree. Each Sunday she sits down to map out the week ahead and is now more confident and attending work more regularly.

The app also features a red button that users can press to call a support worker in times of crisis. There were initial worries that some users would be hitting the panic button all the time but during trials the average has been once every two weeks with an average response time of five minutes.

Bethany is 16 and started using Brain In Hand in her last year at school. ‘I was a bit dubious at first,’ she says. Bethany was feeling the pressure of exams and was becoming more withdrawn and struggling to stay in class. She used to phone her mum Kate, but quite often she would be at work. If it was not easy to talk to her mum she might then go and find a teacher; if that failed she would just hide away. A support system on her iPhone worked well as she was already using it for SnapChat and Facebook. At first she felt self-conscious if a friend looked over her shoulder and asked what she was doing but with help from Chloe, her support worker at Wirral Autistic Society, Bethany became more relaxed about using it. Bethany did well in her exams and is now studying child care at college where she is using Brain In Hand to help with independent travel, with making new friends and for dealing with the stress of moving to a new environment.

Apps are one of the key factors that have transformed prospects for young people with autism. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a communication system often used by those with autism who do not speak and who may have problems understanding written or spoken language. Traditionally, however, it came in a cumbersome folder that was neither stylish nor easy to carry. Staff at Autism Together have been trialling a system using Proloquo2go on the iPad. Families and support staff can program the app with the most useful and relevant PECS symbols, which the software will speak out loud. Once this is done it opens up a world of independent communication.

Ryan Dolan works for the London Borough of Brent local and was looking for a PECS-based diary system. He was disappointed to find that available systems were very child friendly but were not suitable for teenagers and adults. With funding from the UK government’s Department of Health and support from international company Globo he now has a fully functional, fully designed prototype to take to market. This is a route that may appeal to other organisations that know what is needed for their community but do not have the skills in-house to produce and market a product.

OMI Reflex

(Right) Mark Gilbert of OMI Interactive with the company's interactive floor panel. (Left) OMI Interactive's wall display on show at the conference

(Right) Mark Gilbert of OMI Interactive with the company’s interactive floor panel. (Left) OMI Interactive’s wall display on show at the conference

Interactive floors are becoming a familiar visitor attraction in museums and are popular in special schools but OM Interactive is now exporting its products to Scandinavia and Qatar. The company provides a range of gesture-controlled systems that work well for many children with autism as they can interact as they wish and may respond to the moving images, the sounds or colours. Delegates at AUTECH 2015 liked OMI Reflex, an interactive wall that responds to users’ movements. It features a live image of the player within the game and this helps with proprioception (sense of body position, movement, and acceleration) and improves young people’s sense of self.

Autism Connect
Autism Connect is the UK’s first social network for people with autism and their families. It has been very well received: 10,000 users have come online in six months. It is autism friendly with lots of free information resources, videos for professionals and for siblings. It is completely free but they there is now an iPad app and they are looking for further funding to develop an Android app.

AUTECH 2015 provided a welcome chance to catch up on current developments and to get a glimpse into what is yet to come. However, only a small number of people can attend a conference and benefit from seeing the products on show there so I cornered Sandra Thistlethwaite, Product Development Director at Inclusive Technology, which is based in nearby Delph. The company sources and develops many different products for children with a range of conditions including autism. Here are her recommendations for families:

ChooseIt! Maker 3

ChooseIt! Maker 3 by Inclusive Technology

Most of Inclusive’s iPad and Android apps are appropriate and popular. Cheap single games include Smarty Pants and Train Tracker. Bundles include Big Bang Patterns (good for determining preferences), Big Bang Pictures, and Counting Songs (language). There is also ChooseIt! Maker 3 (personalised content to teach choice making).

The ReacTickles2 suite of apps. Based on research with children with autism they provide ‘an exploratory experience that maximises on children’s desire for repetition in order to maintain control’. For use with an interactive whiteboard, microphone, mouse or keyboard. Communication devices including Smooth Talker (unique Turn Taking mode), Talking Tiles, and  Talking Photo Album (inexpensive and multiple uses).

It seems likely that over the next few years we will see many new developments and instead of wondering if technology is a good idea for children with autism we will look closely at how these innovations can improve communication, assist in the development of social skills, and enhance their ability to learn.


About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

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