The same technology used to make smartphones and tablets interactive, doubles as therapy for people with cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, and other developmental disabilities. Mobile devices are now valuable components of the rehabilitative process.
Researchers from the University of Iowa, plus two other North American universities, are developing a wide range of applications using multi-touch technology in a therapeutic setting for both children and adults afflicted with these disabilities.
For example, the collaborative-storytelling app by Iowa researchers, meant for elementary-aged children in an afterschool program, guides autistic children through a story, prompting them to imagine new twists and turns and to draw them on the touch screen with a partner. While engaging in the mental exercise of storytelling, these often-socially inhibited children end up working with peers to complete the task and use a stylus to focus on their fine motor development.
Other games, like those developed by the Scientists’ Discovery Room Lab at Harvard and by University of Alberta researcher Michelle Annett, focus on improving upper arm and wrist motion ranges to benefit children with cerebral palsy as well as stroke victims.
“It’s a very motivating tool for the patients. It’s visual, the feedback is instant and it’s fun,” said Isabel Henderson, vice president of Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Canada, where games on a touch-screen table comprise part of stroke victims’ physical rehabilitation.
The benefits extend beyond the convenience, novelty and enjoyment they provide patients. Some occupational therapists expect they can reduce the time patients spend in expensive traditional therapy. The technology can also give therapists more data than traditional exercises.
For example, the Canadian-developed “Pop Those Balloons” therapeutic game can record a patient’s reaction time down to a split second. In addition, both children and adults wear a device on the impaired side of their bodies that disrupts the game when the patient tries to compensate for their limited range of arm motion by leaning their body toward the screen, making sure they get maximum benefit from therapy.
Beyond therapy, an increasing amount of mobile apps and devices provide assistance in everyday life as well. Students at the University of Toronto developed the MyVoice app allows people who can’t speak because of a stroke, autism, brain injury or other disability to communicate in daily living situations.
For the visually impaired, there is the ZoomReader app, which takes a picture of the desired text, digitally converts it using character recognition technology, and reads it aloud to the user through an integrated voice synthesiser. The app can also magnify text size and highlight words so they are more easily read, making everyday texts like prescription bottles and menus easier to access.
And there is a growing demand for these kinds of technology. One out of 110 children in the U.S. has autism spectrum disorder, one out of 300 children has cerebral palsy, and one of every 380 Americans suffers a stroke each year, according to the centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Adding affected siblings, parents, spouses, and other relatives to these numbers creates a potentially huge population who may benefit from the physical and mental improvement these types of products can provide.