Little screens may teach skills to teens with autism

By MATTHEW HALL

Capital News Service

LANSING – Video-based teaching methods could change the way Michigan schools educate teens with autism.

Videos shown on computers and iPads successfully demonstrated to teenagers with autism how to behave in new social situations, according to the latest research from Michigan State University.

Autism is a developmental disorder that hampers a person’s ability to communicate and understand others.

Basic milestones in development, such as pointing out an object to someone else, or later milestones such as reading body language or facial cues, can be challenging to teens with autism depending on where they are on the autism spectrum, experts say.

Video technologies have proven successful in one-on-one teaching with younger children, experts said.

“A lot of people with autism are drawn to technology and respond to it very well,” said Lisa Grost, autism coordinator for the Department of Community Health. “It can capture their attention and possibly allow the teachers and people working with them to learn things they didn’t know, to get to know students better and learn their abilities from another angle.”

But the new research shows technology can be used to teach more complex social skills to teens and to whole groups of teens at one time.

If implemented, the methods could transform how some autism services are delivered.

“This research is very, very valuable,” said Colleen Allen, CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan in Southfield. “This will help equip individuals with autism with skills they’ll need to perform in the classroom and to be able to have conversations with their peers.

“When they go to college, this will help them to make friends and they will be better equipped at interviewing and possibly succeeding in a work setting.”

Allen said educational autism services typically vary depending on where an individual student is on the spectrum of abilities. Children are often evaluated by an educational team that develops a plan to support their particular needs.

“There are autism classrooms where students spend their entire day with other students with autism,” she said. “The teacher tends to be trained to teach students on the spectrum and the schools, if appropriate, offer opportunities for those kids to interact with typical peers.”

In the new research, videos presented to teens featured people engaging in an interactive conversation, said lead researcher Joshua Plavnick, an assistant professor at Michigan State University.

“If someone asks you, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ you would answer the question and then ask them the same question,” Plavnick said. “A lot of kids with autism, when they can have some kind of verbal back-and-forth, they often don’t keep the conversation going.

“If I were to ask a teenager with autism, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ they might say, ‘I went to the movies’ and that’s the end of it. What we’re trying to do in this experiment is get them to ask the same question back and continue the conversation: ‘Did you do anything fun?’”

Plavnick said that he found students don’t receive very much social-skills instruction in school. It might be taught as opportunities arise throughout the day rather than through explicit lessons.

The newest finding in the research is the video can be taught effectively to several adolescents at the same time.

“The one-to-one format is not very efficient or practical, given the demands of most public schools,” Plavnick said.

Classes using the technology would have to group students based on where they are in the spectrum and what kinds of deficits and talents they have, Plavnick said. But more than that, many students will still need individualized support.

Plavnick, the MSU researcher, is in his first year of testing the methods with partners in Livonia Public Schools.

“We’re just now starting to learn how to get this out to schools in a way that’s feasibly implemented and that’s sustainable. So we’re not quite sure what that’s going to entail,” he said.

Early data suggests that the teachers need quite a bit of ongoing coaching in how to use the technology to teach teens with autism.

“I think one thing that’s really going to be important for schools in the future is going to be having somebody within the school or within the district that is initially involved from the beginning and can provide some support that’s needed as more teachers in that district start to use these procedures,” Plavnick.

Allen added that it’s vital to continue supporting adolescents with services because those social skills are foundational for later-life success.

Grost said she hasn’t seen research like this with teenagers before.

“We were excited when we saw this research come through because at a younger age they show a lot of video role-modeling,” she said.

“But gosh, to teach teens, this is a great area to focus on.”

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