Students create app to help children with autism

Autism disorders have become an epidemic in America, with cases growing at the rate of 600 percent over the last two decades. It now affects one out of 110 children and one out of every 70 boys. 

For UWSP Associate Professor Anthony Ellertson, these are not just statistics, as his son was diagnosed with autism at age two. After dealing with a dizzying maze of therapies and professionals, the professor of Web & Digital Media Development realized that applications (apps) for electronic tablets and mobile devices might open a new world inside the therapy practices for children with autism. 

These apps have now become a reality. Using an Applied Research grant from the Wisconsin Technology Foundation and assistance from Research in Motion’s (RIM) Blackberry products, Ellertson and several of his students created a series of mobile technology apps that offer therapists more effective ways to work with their patients and better communicate with others involved, including the child’s doctors, teachers and parents, so that treatment is synchronized at every level. 

“This work comes out of the experience my wife and I had with our son,” Ellertson said. “We wondered what we needed to address his autism. And as this epidemic is causing the need for more therapists, we want to provide them with the tools to do their jobs well and get everyone on the same page.” 

The help from RIM came free of charge when they heard about Ellertson’s idea from one of his colleagues. They supplied Blackberry Playbooks for the project and sent representatives to work with Ellertson and his students on creating the apps.   

“This was done without expecting anything in return,” said Ellertson. “RIM is committed to helping in the community.” 

Very few universities in the U.S. are doing this kind of programming work, added Ellertson. “It’s also unusual for undergraduates to do work normally done as part of a master’s degree program,” he said. “This is graduate-level grant research, being used to solve real world problems and bringing to bear the most up-to-date solutions.” 

Students working on the programming were paid through the grant. But it’s been more than a job to them, as they know how this will help many children. 

“We all had a strong personal commitment to seeing this through and making sure it worked,” said Gail Lindner, a recent UWSP graduate who helped with the programming. “It’s an exciting project.” 

The completed family of apps offers a common ground for all caregivers to track a child’s progress using tablets and other mobile devices. Video applications record the child’s behaviors during therapy and allow them to be charted and tracked for all to see. The apps also use an artificial intelligence engine to capture the expertise of a senior therapist, allowing a new therapist or one in training to use that knowledge to keep the therapy progressing and make it more effective and efficient. 

Ellertson said the work has also lead to additional grant-funded projects in which students are creating apps that help with patient hospital care as well as those that will enhance physical and occupational therapy through motion-capture technology. 

“In working to solve this problem, we’ve found ways to help others,” said Ellertson.