About "screen time", screen quality, and other challenges

#freshfromthelab: Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson.


Today at the weekly CBCD seminar we are very fortunate to be joined by Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, who travelled all the way from Edinburgh to share her exciting research on autism and technology!


Sue is involved in a number of interesting projects. Her topics include parents’ attitudes to technology, how people with autism use technology, and evaluating how new technologies might be useful for people with autism.


In her talk today, Sue focused on a recent study that she conducted on an iPad app for preschool children with autism. The app targets children’s early social communication skills. It gives children the chance to practice two behaviours associated with these skills: attending to people and following social cues (such as a person’s point or gaze).

In the first part of the app, children are presented with a cartoon person on the iPad. They need to tap the person. In the second part of the app, children are again presented with a cartoon person on the iPad, but this time the cartoon person pointed or looked to various objects shown on the screen. The children needed to tap the object that the cartoon person pointed to or looked at.


In Sue’s study, she included a group of 54 children with autism, who were all under the age of six. This group of children was randomly split into two groups of 27. The first group of children played the app across a period of two months, while the second group did not play the app. Sue and her colleagues tested the effects of the app by comparing the two groups’ social communication skills.


The study found that there were no differences between the social communication behaviours during parent-child play between the children who did and did not play the app. However, parent feedback showed that the children who took part in this study generally enjoyed playing the app. Most parents also perceived the app positively.

Parents’ views on the app were an important part of this study, suggesting that the app may have had other gains for the autistic children and their families who took part in this research, beyond those that were directly evaluated in the study. For example, some families enjoyed the app as a way to sit down with their children and engage in a rewarding activity together.

Technology has been a regular topic in the media recently, especially in terms of the amount of “screen time” that is appropriate for young people. Sue lists a number of activities that are all very different but could all fall under the broad label of “screen time,” such as doing homework on a computer, playing Wii sports, or skyping a relative. Rather than asking how much time is spent using technology, perhaps we should be asking how technology is being used during this time?


Sue and all researchers of technological effects face a common problem: technology evolves quickly. Within the past decade, there’s been a huge increase in the use of touchscreen devices, such as iPads. These changes also change how young people interact with technology. We have done some research on the early use of touchscreen devices here at the CBCD.


Thoughtful, well-designed research (like the study described by Sue) takes time to carry out, but while research may move slowly – technology does not! Rather than trying to conduct studies for every new piece of technology that is launched, we should try to understand the features of digital technology that could be particularly beneficial for people with autism.

We’ll be sure to stay up to date with this research! You can read more about Sue’s and the rest of her team’s research on the following lab page here.

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