App Improves Communication in Non-Verbal Children with Autism

McCleery's Headshot


PHILADELPHIA (December 21, 2018) – Researchers at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University have tested a high-tech approach to improving social and communication skills in non-verbal and minimally verbal children with autism. The promising results , which showed equal effectiveness among the new and previously tested communication intervention methods, were published in Autism Research.

“Parents and families have been looking for an effective on-the-go, app-based approach for this communication need for some time,” said Joseph McCleery, Ph.D., executive director of academic programs at the nationally-renowned Kinney Center and mentor on the study. “Our study shows that this app is just as effective as the heavily-researched, evidence-based picture card intervention.”

McCleery and his collaborators at the National University of Ireland at Galway used a randomized controlled trial to teach social communication behaviors to non-vocal and minimally-vocal school students with autism. Thirty-five children participated, ranging from 5 to 13 years old. Some children received the intervention using standard communication books, picture cards and sentence strips. Others used an app that converted pictures to sound, also known as a speech generating device. Results showed comparable improvements in social and communication skills among both groups.

“It’s critical that research keep pace with technological developments,” said first author Shawn Gilroy, now assistant professor at Louisiana State University. “This particular app is open-source and available to anyone.”

Gilroy and McCleery recommend a larger study as a next step to further test the pilot study’s results.

The authors report no conflicts of interest. The research project was supported by funding from RESPECT and the People Program (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agreement no. PCO-FUND-GA-2013-608728.