How experts are using technology to tackle autism

Technology and devices in the hands of small children can sometimes get a bad rap.

But experts say that advances in technology are making it easier to diagnose autism and treat symptoms.

According to Dr. Veena Ahuja, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, experts can use special cameras to track a child’s eye gaze, which has been shown in research as one way to detect traits of autism in young children.

“There’s been some really interesting research that shows we can use different cameras to look where a child is looking,” she said. “If you show them an image of a face, for example, they’re not likely to look at the eyes -- they might look at the periphery, or the chin, or forehead, instead.” 

The use of technology goes beyond diagnosis -- there are also programs that can help children with autism communicate better.

Ahuja said non-verbal children can use speech generating apps, where they can press pictures and the app will speak for them, helping them communicate their wants and needs.

She said when children have a better way to communicate, they have fewer behavioral problems.

There are also programs to help kids manage symptoms, as well as role-playing virtual reality games that teach kids with autism how to deal with bullies.

Ahuja said encouraging technology use for young children can be a confusing message for parents, because doctors are often telling parents to get their kids off technology. 

When the technology is being used to communicate, however, it’s a different story.

“There’s a big difference between using technology for entertainment purposes, where they’re not engaging with other people, and using it to actually communicate,” Ahuja said. 

While most of the technology designed for autism is very new, Ahuja said experts are excited about the possibilities of using it to help young children. She said the brains of young children are still developing, and research has shown the more they learn while they are young, the better their progress will be over time.

“The hours of speech therapy they receive at age 2 is going to determine how well they’re doing by age 4,” said Ahuja. “So there’s a pretty immediate improvement when we get them into speech therapy and ABA, physical therapy and occupational therapy as soon as possible.”