App proves a game changer for autistic children
Children diagnosed with autism are being taught better social skills through new video modelling techniques being used by Autism SA and evaluated by University of Adelaide researchers.
In the latest breakthrough, a social skills app has been launched after it was shown to improve the social behaviour of 90 per cent of eight to 12-year-olds who participated in a group-based program.
Dr Neil Kirby, a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Disabilities Research Unit at the University's School of Psychology, said a rigorous evaluation of the program had clearly demonstrated its benefits.
"Overall there's good evidence of improvements with some children moving into the normal range for particular social behaviours, which is quite significant," he said.
"That doesn't necessarily mean they are functioning normally in every respect - and it doesn't work for everybody - but we've confirmed such an approach can be very successful. There's tremendous scope for further development."
The University is in the fifth year of a partnership with Autism SA to evaluate an iModelling Project funded though $720,000 in grants from the Telstra Foundation.
About 135 children aged 8 to 16 have been assessed in groups of up to eight by Dr Kirby and his team since the program started.
Children with autism show social skills disorders of varying degrees which makes it hard for them to interact with people. This places them at risk of social isolation and problems later in life.
Video modelling involves filming the behaviour of autistic children and then editing the video to show only appropriate behaviours. The child is then encouraged to watch the video repeatedly to learn how to interact with others appropriately, which in turn helps improve self- confidence.
The new autism app was designed by Adelaide-based developer Mighty Kingdom and works on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. It's designed to be easier to operate than normal video technology.
Using the internationally accepted Social Skills Improvement System, University of Adelaide researchers in the Disabilities Research Unit tested children who have been using the app at home and in weekly group classes over the past 12 months.
Among the key findings is that 80 per cent of children show improvements in social engagement, such as joining in activities, initiating conversations, making friends and interacting appropriately with others.
Significantly, 62 per cent of those participating in the group-based program increased their engagement social skills to within the band for typically-developing peers without autism, and problem social behaviour scores decreased for 80 per cent of the children.
"The program was particularly effective for younger children," Dr Kirby said. "We also found that children in the program and their parents gained a greater understanding of autism and felt less isolated from the community."
The research team is now looking at follow-up studies to establish if improvements from the iModelling Project translate into improved classroom behaviours at school and if parents are still noticing the benefits of the program two or three years later.
"I would also be very keen to see the project extended for use in schools where I think it has great potential," Dr Kirby said. "Appropriately modified versions of the program might start as early intervention at kindergarten to prepare them for school and then at each transitional stage as the child moves to high school and then post-school activities."