New App Aims to Create Individualized Treatment Plans for Children with ASD

children with tabletMore than ever, parents and educators of children with autism have been utilizing technology to help these children develop various skills. Now, researchers are finding that apps and touch-screen games can possibly allow scientists to tailor treatments for children on the spectrum.

A new game designed for tablets has been designed to evaluate implicit learning, which takes place without the learner being aware or being explicitly taught. Many of the skills that autistic children struggle with, such as language and social abilities, are learned implicitly. Implicit learning is becoming increasingly essential in understanding autism disorders, as well as critical in helping children develop important skills more effectively.

Rebecca Jones, postdoctoral researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, who presented the results of the study, states, “This is the age at which many children with autism are receiving behavioral intervention.” Studying this particular age group is essential, as behavioral interventions often involve implicit learning. In Jones’ initial study, 19 children between the ages of 3 to 7 were given a tablet to play a game based on popular cartoons. The primary object of the game was to tap the screen when they saw a specific character, in this case, SpongeBob Square Pants.

Approximately 75 percent of the time, a specific character, a squid, appeared on the screen right before SpongeBob’s appearance, while the remaining 25 percent featured a snail character prior to SpongeBob’s arrival. The researchers deemed these characters as clues to the children’s implicit learning abilities. They analyzed how fast the children were able to touch the screen when SpongeBob appeared.

As the game progressed, they found that the children subconsciously picked up on the fact that the squid character foreshadowed SpongeBob’s appearance. The researchers noticed that after a while, the children were slower to acknowledge SpongeBob when he appeared after the snail. Although they are not clear as to why this happened, Jones states, “the important thing is the difference between the low-probability and high-probability clues”.

The study suggests that moving from an implicit to explicit awareness may be critical in developing various methods of learning. This progression is particularly important for children on the spectrum, who often learn by more explicit methods, such as learning how to interact socially by being told repetitively, in detail, how to get along with others. Or rather, this study may be a signal for interventions to move children from explicit learning to more implicit, intuitive methods.

Researchers are still introducing the game to larger numbers of children with autism spectrum disorders, aiming to pinpoint the deficits in explicit learning, and where implicit learning can fill the void. Furthermore, they are seeing if the game can predict the effectiveness of three-month behavioral interventions for children on the spectrum. This approach can lead to “learning profiles” for the child, giving them therapies that will be most effective in their development.

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