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A smartphone application that works with Google Glass might help kids with autism build their social skills, a small clinical trial suggests.
Researchers found that over six weeks, kids who used the app at home with their families made greater gains in certain social abilities, compared to those who stuck with their usual therapy alone.
Experts said the findings, published online March 25 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, are only an initial step. It's not yet clear how the app -- which is not commercially available -- might affect kids' development in the long run.
But the study highlights the promise of digital technology in supporting face-to-face therapies for autism, said senior researcher Dennis Wall.
"We do think it's going to be a helpful augmentation," said Wall, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, in California. "We hope this sets the stage for more to come."
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects about one in 59 U.S. children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It varies widely in severity: One child might have mild problems with communication and social skills, while another might be profoundly affected -- speaking little and getting wrapped up in repetitive, obsessive behaviors.
But difficulty with socializing is a hallmark across the board.
Standard behavioral therapy, including applied behavioral analysis (ABA), aims to help kids with autism build social skills. But therapists are in short supply, and families can be on waitlists for up to 18 months, Wall said.
He pointed to other issues, too: The quality of ABA is "variable," and in general, kids can have difficulty translating what happens in therapy to everyday life.
If smartphones can help families practice skills at home, Wall said, that could help fill those gaps.
For the study, his team enrolled 71 children with autism who were already in ABA therapy. The children, aged 6 to 12, were randomly assigned to stick with ABA only, or add the digital therapy.
Wall noted that the therapy was designed with feedback from families to get a sense of what worked and what kids enjoyed.