a baby in front of a computerA new study affirms the importance of tailored interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in cooperation with Vanderbilt University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute find that children who use a computer tablet system to support communication therapy improve their language skills more than children who only receive standard therapy. This finding has the potential to aid some of the 30% of children with ASD who are minimally verbal, even after receiving treatment.

The researchers spent three years investigating several approaches for improving the communication skills of children with ASD. For the present study, the research team monitored the progress of 61 children with ASD, aged five to eight years old. The children received a six-month course of therapy focused on communication skills including social communication gestures, play skills, and spoken language.

The researchers randomly selected half of the children to use computer tablets to augment the communication therapy. This group of children spent at least half of their therapy time using a tablet application that was programmed with audio clips and images corresponding to words that the children were learning. When the children tapped a picture of an object, like “block,” the tablet would play the word matching the picture. Three months after the study, the researchers conducted a follow-up assessment.

Children’s language skills improved considerably when their therapy was tailored specifically to their needs. The children who used the tablet application were more likely to use language spontaneously and socially than the children who only received the standard communication intervention. The researchers also found that the tablets were more effective when introduced at the outset of a therapy program, rather than later on. When the researchers followed up three months later, the children’s improvements had been maintained.

This is the first study with children on the autism spectrum to use a sequential multiple assignment randomized trial (SMART) design. This design allows researchers to tailor interventions based on individual patient responses.

“It was remarkable how well the tablet worked in providing access to communication for these children. Children who received the behavioral intervention along with the tablet to support their communication attempts made much faster progress in learning to communication, and especially in using spoken language,” stated Connie Kasari, paper’s senior author and professor of human development and psychology at UCLA.

This research is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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