UMMS researchers developing tools to help nonverbal children on the autism spectrum communicate

Feb 27, 2014

A team of UMass Medical School researchers are developing tools for the classroom and clinic to help teach communication skills to nonverbal children on the autism spectrum who struggle to understand that pictures relate to real-life objects or events.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the research is being led by Commonwealth Medicine Director of Academic Development William McIlvane, PhD. Researchers are working with students at public and private schools across Massachusetts who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“I think of myself and my colleagues as toolmakers,” said Dr. McIlvane, also professor of psychiatry at UMMS, whose team is in the third year of a four-year project. “We don’t want to give the teachers, clinicians, speech language pathologists very complicated instructional procedures. We want to give them something they can buy over the counter that won’t cost very much – their education and clinical budgets can afford it – and is evidence based instructional technology at the highest level.”

Autism Speaks estimates that 25 percent of individuals on the autism spectrum are initially nonverbal (perhaps 500,000 in the United States, and many millions worldwide). While picture-aided communication can help many such individuals learn to communicate effectively, a substantial number have great difficulty learning to relate pictures with items that they represent.

 “We’re using some fairly high-powered computer hardware and software, which is affordable now for the classroom, to try to resolve that problem,” McIlvane said.

Using currently available software, for example, one can use apparent rotation of pictured items on a two-dimensional space (the screen of a tablet or smartphone) to simulate the three dimensions of corresponding objects. McIlvane believes that teaching procedures of this type may help children break through the three-dimensional to two-dimensional barrier.

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