Connie Kasari: Tablet Computers May Help Children with Autism Become Better Communicators

Kasari, principal investigator for the study, explores how technology enhances communication for minimally-verbal children.

Contact: Kathy Wyer,
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In a three year study examining how different approaches to intervention can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) learn to become better communicators, UCLA education and health sciences professor Connie Kasari, along with researchers at Vanderbilt University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, have found that communication for minimally verbal children can be greatly improved through interventions that are combined with the use of iPad computer tablets.

The trial involved an underserved population of 61 minimally verbal five to eight year old children with ASD. All children were treated with an intervention that combined a social communication intervention developed at UCLA with a spoken language intervention developed at Vanderbilt University.  This blended intervention was offered to all children while half were randomly selected to also have access to a computer tablet to determine if it would facilitate more communication.

“It was remarkable how well the tablet worked in providing access to communication for these children,” stated Connie Kasari, principal investigator on the UCLA-led project. “Children who received the behavioral intervention along with the iPad to support their communication attempts made much faster progress in learning to communicate, and especially in using spoken language.”

Researchers reported that children who used the computer tablet also used language spontaneously and socially, and they demonstrated more commenting language than children who were treated with behavioral interventions alone.

Additionally, researchers discovered that beginning treatment with a computer tablet made a difference: Introducing a tablet later if a child was not progressing was not as effective as using it from the start.  An estimated 30 percent of school-aged children with an ASD remain minimally verbal even after receiving years of behavioral interventions.

“Dr. Kasari and UCLA are at the forefront of new frontiers in education research,” stated Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, dean and distinguished professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “This is extremely important and promising work linking digital technologies to new discoveries in mind-brain and education.”

The study was the first in the field of ASD to utilize a Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) design, which enabled researchers to tailor interventions according to how each child responded. Research assistant professor Daniel Almirall and professor of statistics Susan Murphy, both biostatisticians at the University of Michigan and researchers on the team, pioneered the SMART approach.  The SMART approach aims to develop behavioral interventions that are individualized to the specific needs and evolving status of the child.

Partners for the research project include Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute and a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, and Ann Kaiser, the Susan W. Gray professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University.  The study was funded by a High Risk High Impact grant from the Autism Speaks Foundation, and is the first randomized controlled trial on an underserved population of children to use a computer tablet combined with behavioral interventions.

The findings of the study have been published in a paper, “Communication Interventions for Minimally Verbal Children With Autism: Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial,” (Kasari, C., Kaiser, A., Goods, K., Nietfeld, J., Mathy, P., Landa, R., Murphy, S., Almirall, D.) in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (June, 2014).

Based on the pilot data generated by the study, Kasari has also received a $13 million Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund continued research involving minimally verbal children.

Kasari will serve as principal investigator on the ACE Network grant that will compare two types of intensive, daily instruction for an underrepresented population of children in schools in underserved communities who have an ASD and who use only minimal verbal communication. For this study, a SMART design will once again be used and all children participating will be treated with interventions that use iPads.  Researchers on the five-year network study plan to enroll nearly 200 children in four cities, including Los Angeles, Nashville, New York and Rochester, N.Y.  With UCLA again serving as the lead site, partners will include Weill Cornell Medical Center, University of Rochester, and Vanderbilt University.

Kasari, who is a member of UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART), holds appointments in the department of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and in the department of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.