iPad Games Help People with Autism and Cerebral Palsy

July 28th, 2011 by Kel Smith | Filed under Cognitive, Gaming, Innovation, Media Coverage, Mobile Apps, Uncategorized, Virtual Reality

Two girls with Asperger's syndrome work together to play the 'Untangle' game

Two girls with Asperger's syndrome work together to play the 'Untangle' game. Photo by Shalini Ramachandran of the WSJ.

A piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday discussed the use of multitouch technology — such as that used in iPads, smartphones, and tablet devices — are being investigated as therapy for people living with cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders. Researchers from three North American universities are developing therapeutic applications for these devices, branching out to include people with developmental disabilities and stroke victims.

What is interesting about this research is the way that games are introduced into therapeutic contexts. Children with cerebral palsy work to improve motor skill efficiency through repetitive exercises like swiping a Microsoft Surface touch-screen table and controlling the position of a virtual butterfly jar. By “capturing” butterflies with their hand, they send feedback to a worn device that records the tilt of their torsos. The idea is to keep children focused on their arm movements by stopping the game when the exercise isn’t done properly.

“We’re at a real turning point in our profession,” says Quentin Ranson, an occupational therapist at a hospital in the University of Alberta. Ranson also mentioned that these new devices and procedures could reduce the time patients spend in therapy, increasing motivation and alleviating the burden on payer organizations.

There has been much research and discussion on the use of such tools as the Nintendo Wii for rehabilitation. However, experts say that off-the-shelf games start at levels too difficult for most patients. Virtual and augmented reality setups are too costly to have widespread benefit on multiple patients. And they may not be appropriate for most patients. “There’s absolutely no way our clients could handle the sensory overload,” Ranson said.

It should also be noted that technology tools do not replace other forms of therapy. In fact, many of these apps have greater benefit when used in conjunction with other treatments, such as when a touchscreen app is presented to an autistic child as a form of “reward.” Some patients are finding that learning and communication skills improve when Applied Behavior Analysis is augmented with virtual apps that allow synthesis and creativity to enter the mix.

For these emerging forms of therapy to enter the mainstream, additional studies must be conducted to determine efficacy within individual categories. There is currently no federal agency regulating the use of virtual technologies in the form of therapy, like the Food and Drug Administration. Much of the knowledge is shared via word-of-mouth or through presentations by opinion leaders. What cannot be disputed is the shift change currently taking place, and the role that digital outcasts play in formulating this new path to personal empowerment.

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