iPod videos cue autistic adolescents

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Rowan Prof helps produce social behavior videos for the small screen.

The ubiquitous iPod, long evolved beyond a digital music player, has developed yet a new dimension thanks in part to Rowan Professor S. Jay Kuder – as a hand-held instructional device for autistic adolescents.

Kuder, working with researchers and clinicians at KenCrest, a health services provider in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., helped develop a series of iPod-ready videos to guide autistic adolescents through everyday situations like going to the grocery store, eating in a restaurant, even crossing the street.

Available for download to iPods and other hand-held MP3 players, the 2-3 minute videos, dubbed Mi-Stories™, provide behavioral cues for autistic adolescents whose condition can make daily activities seem nightmarish and overwhelming.

Kuder, chair of the Department of Special Education Services and Instruction within the College of Education, said the videos were designed to help ease anxieties for autistic youths that can arise when even a trip to the market can cause sensory overload from all the sights, scents, and sounds.

“Our research was built on other research that came before,” said Kuder. “What’s different is the way we’re delivering the video – digitizing it so it’s accessible in an iPod. They’re looking at the videos and using them to interact in real social situations.”

Kuder, who conducted the three-year research project and wrote scripts for the productions, said repeated showings of the videos to autistic youths helped them manage stressful, if everyday, situations.

He said access to the videos on their iPod, even while at a store or a restaurant, provides instant behavioral cues and a calming effect.

“Merely looking at the videos helps them calm down,” Kuder said. “The screen seems to give them a frame and helps them to focus.”

Autism Epidemic?

While many experts are loath to say autism in America has become an epidemic, Kuder said it might be heading that way. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that as many as 1 in 100 American children are affected by some degree of autism but that estimate could be less a reflection of an uptick in new cases than better reporting over years past.

“We know there’s a genetic component but nothing explains it all,” said Kuder. “Autism is a group of disorders and determining why they occur isn’t quite there. My concern is the behavioral end of it – how to help the kids in the classroom and in the community.”

Kuder said the next phase of the project will be the production of a video game with the same type of behavioral cues provided by the videos.

Now celebrating his 25th year as a Rowan faculty member, Kuder said the university has a long history of commitment to the treatment of autism. The school offers a 15-credit hour Certificate of Graduate Study in Autism Spectrum Disorders and will host the inaugural Rowan University Conference on Autism March 15.

Kuder said his work with KenCrest enabled some Rowan graduate students to gain experience working with autistic children and young adults, experience that is sure to help in the job market.

Kelly Young, who will receive her Master’s in Counseling in Educational Settings in May, said the study built upon previous experience working with students with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, at Rowan’s Career and Academic Planning center.

“They responded extremely well but there was some variance,” said Young, 31, of Winslow Township, of the video iPod study. “Some students would watch the videos and almost parrot back the information while others really seemed to assimilate it.”

An idea takes hold

Debbie Lord, director of health, clinical and program support at KenCrest, said the Mi-Stories™ video iPod concept developed from an afterschool program for autistic adolescents featuring video modeling. The difference, she said, is Mi-Stories™ are portable.

“We thought if you can take it with you and have it at your fingertips it provides instant guidance,” Lord said. “Plus, if you’re playing an iPod, it’s a way to look like everybody else.”

Lord said the research she and Kuder collaborated on showed significant benefit to users, primarily in building communication skills.

“We’re not saying this can be a cure all but it can help people in a variety of ways,” she said. “Just having the ability to rehearse a situation and then watch it again and again can really help them.”

Lord said the eight Mi-Stories™ titles – Going to the Grocery StoreGetting DressedGoing to a Restaurant, Riding in a Car, Crossing the Street, Calming Techniques, Training for Caregivers and How to use the iPod – may be purchased and downloaded from KenCrest for $7.99 each at www.kencrest.org/mi-stories.

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