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Children with autism may benefit from app-based therapies

A study by researchers at the Telethon Kids Institute has shown that in addition to intervention with trained therapists, children with autism may benefit from apps that guide parents on how to undertake therapy in their home.

Head of the Autism Research Team at the Telethon Kids Institute and UWA Professor Andrew Whitehouse said therapy for children with autism can require a significant amount of time with a trained therapist, sometimes up to 20 hours per week.

“This therapy often presents difficulties for families in terms of access and financial expense and we wanted to examine whether children could also benefit from app-based therapies, which are relatively low in cost, and can be delivered by parents in the home,” Professor Whitehouse said.

For the study, parents of recently diagnosed children with autism were provided with the Therapy Outcomes By You (TOBY) iPad app, a product supplied by Autism West to guide home therapy with their child. Another group of children received therapy as usual.

TOBY was developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Deakin and Curtin Universities, Autism West and specialist psychologists and speech pathologists, led by Alfred Deakin Professor Svetha Venkatesh, an Australian Laureate Fellow from Deakin. For the first time, the app tracks the precise stimulus derived from a best practice curriculum and the child’s response, monitoring a child’s progress minutely.

The findings, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, showed that children who used the app over a six month period were found to have greater improvements in several areas of development compared with the children who received therapy as usual.

The areas of improvement included key areas of developmental skill, such as simple problem solving, fine motor skills and the understanding of words.

Professor Andrew Whitehouse said the study showed iPad-based apps, while not a replacement for traditional therapy, may be a cost effective addition to therapist-delivered intervention.

“We know that early intervention with a trained therapist is the best way to improve developmental outcomes for children on the autism spectrum,” Professor Whitehouse said.

“However, intervention is often very time heavy, which can be expensive and logistically difficult. Many families are simply unable to access these programs as a result.”

“Our study showed well designed, therapeutic apps can provide assistance to caregivers in delivering therapy, and increase the time a child is exposed to therapy at relatively low cost.”

About Telethon Kids Institute:

The Telethon Kids Institute is one of the largest, and most successful medical research institutes in Australia, comprising a dedicated and diverse team of more than 500 staff and students.

We’ve created a bold blueprint that brings together community, researchers, practitioners, policy makers and funders, who share our vision to improve the health and wellbeing of children through excellence in research.

The Institute is headed by leading paediatrician and infectious diseases expert Professor Jonathan Carapetis, with Founding Director Professor Fiona Stanley now Patron.

Telethon Kids is independent and not-for-profit. The majority of funding comes from our success in winning national and international competitive research grants.  We also receive significant philanthropic support from corporate Australia and the community.

About TOBY:

The TOBY (Therapy Outcomes By You) Autism Therapy App is an app for iPad enabling parents to deliver early intervention to young children (2-4 years) with autism. Australian Laureate Fellow and Alfred Deakin Professor Svetha Venkatesh from Deakin University led a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Curtin and Deakin Universities, in conjunction with specialist psychologists and speech pathologists and Autism West  to develop a cutting-edge platform for the flexible delivery and recording of stimulus. For the first time it tracks the precise stimulus derived from a best practice curriculum and the child’s response, thus following  a child’s progress minutely.

TOBY’S dynamic curriculum teaches 52 foundation skills in guided developmental order across 4 learning areas; language, social, sensory and imitation. TOBY has 30 on screen activities for the child to do on iPad and a further 300 real world activities for parents to do at home in their daily routine.

TOBY is owned and supplied by Autism West and can be downloaded from iTunes.

About Autism West:

Autism West is a Western Australian not-for-profit providing unique opportunities for children, teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum to gain skills and experience, enabling them to connect successfully with others and the world around them. We aim to motivate them, build their strengths, and provide a platform for achieving great things. Together, we develop projects that engage and challenge, teaching them skills for life.

Autism West runs a variety of highly successful social groups, including the Telethon Holiday Makers Program for ages 5-18, Awesome Group for ages 10-15, YES Group for ages 13-18, Step into Social for ages 18-30, and special interest programs such as Coding, Music and Visual Arts. They also coordinate events such as the annual symposium, to ensure families have access to the latest information.