Children with Asperger’s syndrome turning to smart phones for help

Sue Pederson knows that the teenage boys in her treatment program have trouble making conversation. They may not know what to talk about, or once they get started, when to shut up.

Sue Pederson knows that the teenage boys in her treatment program have trouble making conversation. They may not know what to talk about, or once they get started, when to shut up.

That’s one of the striking features of people with Asperger’s syndrome: they struggle with the social skills that come so naturally to others.

But about a year ago, Pederson, a psychologist, and her colleagues at the Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis found a new way to reach these students — right through their headphones.

They’re using iPods, which play music and videos, to teach them how to fit in.

It may have started out as a form of entertainment, but Pederson says this kind of technology is turning into an unexpected boon for children and teenagers with special needs. The devices, it turns out, can be crammed with the kind of information they need to get through the day. While it’s still experimental, she said, “I think it’s going to spread like wildfire.”

With Asperger’s, a form of autism, people lack the inner voice that tells them what is, or is not, appropriate behavior. At Fraser, Pederson’s staff came up with the idea of programming iPods to act as an electronic substitute for that missing voice.

In this case, the staff helped students create a series of short videos and slide shows on how to behave in different social settings. Some are barely 30 seconds long: How to carry on a conversation (“Let the other person talk and change the topic. . . ”); how to respect other people’s boundaries, and think before they speak (“Use your filter!”).

In the world of special education, these scripts are known as “social stories,” used to teach basic social skills. “It’s a mental checklist for things to think about when you’re interacting with other people,” explained Mandy Henderson, who works with Fraser’s Asperger’s program.

As part of the Fraser project, the students can transfer the videos onto their iPods, and replay them over and over, to drive the lessons home.

Jack O’Riley, of Eagan, Minn. said it’s just what his 15-year-old son P.J. needed. “This really hit the mark,” he said. Like many kids with Asperger’s, P.J. is baffled by the normal rhythms of social interaction: in conversation, he may blurt out too much information, or say nothing at all, his father says.

At the same time, P.J. is easily distracted and has a hard time staying on task, another common trait of Asperger’s. ‘

For years, O’Riley posted laminated signs around the house to remind his son how to get through the day – take a shower, brush his teeth, get ready for school.

Now, with the videos developed at Fraser, “we can plug this stuff into his little ‘extended memory’,” O’Riley said. P.J. is building a library of videos on his iPhone, so they’ll be at his fingertips.

“He can pull up a topic on his ’to do list’ and find everything he needs to know,” his father said.

The staffers at Fraser came up with the idea after they noticed how students with Asperger’s would use iPods as a calming device, to block out noise or other distractions.

“We just started thinking how else can we use this technology,” said Pederson. They got a $7,500 private grant to buy the iPods and other equipment, and started experimenting.

Jim Ball, an adviser to the Autism Society of America, said similar projects are popping up around the country. Some people are designing adaptations for smart phones, Palm Pilots and other devices to fill the same need, he said.