Autism Research Leads to App Development

Dr. Angela Barber
Dr. Angela Barber

From the November 2013 Desktop News Over the years, a range of methods and techniques have been developed to help children diagnosed with autism enhance their social skills. Now, thanks to research done by Dr. Angela Barber, an assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders who specializes in autism spectrum disorders, students in UA’s Emerging Scholars program, and other UA faculty, there’s an app for that.

The smart phone app is designed to boost the interpersonal communication skills of children with autism and is based on the growing trend of using technology in developmental intervention.

Barber’s research focuses on the development of social skills in children diagnosed with autism as compared to typical children. One struggle children with autism have, Barber explained, is the ability to read and understand non-verbal emotional cues in others, which makes it difficult for these children to interact with people in a typical way.

Two years ago, Barber was approached by Lauren Lambert, a student involved in the University’s Emerging Scholars program, who wanted to know more about developmental intervention techniques. Lambert, now majoring in psychology, wanted to develop a tool that could help children with autism with this crucial part of social development.

After brainstorming ideas with Barber, Lambert joined with Cassidy Lam, a fellow Emerging Scholar and a computer science major, and Joshua Wolfe, another computer science major, to develop an app for smartphones. They also worked with Dr. Jeff Gray, an associate professor of computer science at UA, to develop the technical aspects of the application.

The smart phone app is targeted for children around kindergarten age and is divided into three interactive phases. The child is first presented with an image of a facial expression followed by the word that describes that emotion, such as happy. The app features an audio option and, after either reading or listening to the name of the corresponding emotion, the child is next asked to match the emotion expressed in the image with its correct name.

A key component of the app, Barber explained, is the unique way it is designed to be used in peer groups. The app can be used in a social setting, which enhances the likelihood that the child will increase their ability to recognize facial and emotional cues.

“The ideal setting to use this app would be in a support group, like in a kindergarten or pre-school classroom, so the teacher facilitates the charades phase,” Lambert said. “Ideally, each child takes a turn, and they have to show an emotion, they have to get up and the other children will guess what emotion they’re showing.”

After the app was developed, the students collaborated with Barber, Gray, and Dr. Gary Edwards, executive director of UCP of Greater Birmingham, to write a chapter about their work for the forthcoming publication Innovative Technologies to Benefit Children on the Autism Spectrum, which is set for release in spring 2014.