Nebraskan's app helps parents of autistic children

2013-01-18T13:10:00Z 2013-01-18T17:40:06Z Nebraskan's app helps parents of autistic childrenBy ERIN ANDERSEN / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

If you have a child with autism, now there is an app for that.

This new smartphone/tablet application is designed for parents, with the goal of helping them teach their primarily non-speaking children to communicate.

The app, "MySocius," was developed by Keith Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute in Omaha. It was created by the behavior app division of Sector Now, LLC, a Lincoln-based smartphone development company.

Think beyond the apps that let us play games like "Bubbles" and "Jewel Quest." Beyond apps that track our phones, map our routes or provide a handy flashlight when the lights go out.

"MySocius" is designed to be a sort of digital tutor for parents seeking ways to motivate their uncommunicative child to begin using words.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder. As the name suggests,  there are varying degrees, traits and types of autism. A universal characteristic of autism is persistent struggles with social communication and social interaction.

While there is no cure for autism, early intervention and behavior therapies can help children overcome some aspects of the disorder.

The best prognosis for young children with autism is the ability to develop language by age 5 or 6, Allen said in a telephone interview from his Omaha office.

"MySocius" is not intended to replace professional therapies, but to add to them and reinforce them, Allen said.

“We wanted to help parents do more to help their children learn basic communication skills,” Allen said. “We wanted to develop something that could assist parents right in their homes, and we wanted something that was supported by research.

"MySocius" uses “naturalistic teaching,” he said.

In other words, it addresses issues as they occur in the natural progression of life at home. The app personalizes its program to each family by having parents identify the types of things that interest and motivate their child.

For example, a child with autism who is motivated by food will not be inclined to use words, if the reward is dinosaur stickers. The app shows parents step by step how to use food as a motivator for getting children to use correct words in real life situations.

“It prompts parents what to say, when to pause. ... It walks parents through it. It is not just tips,” Allen said of the app.

"MySocius" is a coaching tool, he said. It is not a communication device for people with autism, such as the DynaVox, in which children press appropriate pictures, which are then translated into words by the machine.

“This is designed to help get kids communicating themselves, not letting the device communicate for them,” Allen said.

"MySocius" is not appropriate for every child diagnosed with autism. It is designed for kids who use words occasionally or not very well, Allen said.

And although answer-seeking parents are inundated with products and methods promising to fix the problems facing children with autism, Allen said, the methods used in "MySocius" are well established and have been validated by years of research and work with children who have autism.

“When parents receive a diagnosis of autism, they wonder what they can do now to make a difference,” Allen said. The app gives them direction and reinforces the work done by professionals with their children.

The app also is affordable. It retails for $24.99, but for a limited time, it is being offered free of charge to families of children with autism. For more information, contact Craig Lutz-Priefert at BehaviorApp, LCC at craig@sectornow.com or 402-423-2444.

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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