Communication can be one of the biggest struggles for children suffering from Down Syndrome.
A Penn State study is hoping to change that, improving communications aids to help those children meet academic and social needs.
According to Penn State News, professor of communication science disorders Krista Wilkinson is heading up the study. Wilkinson has worked with children with disabilities for over two decades. Wilkinson explained that being understood by people is one of the greatest challenges for children with Down Syndrome.
“Recent studies have shown that 95 percent of children with DS have difficulty being understood by persons outside of their immediate social circle. This puts them at risk of falling behind their peers both academically and socially,” she said. “Behavior problems resulting from frustration can have significant health implications and raise service costs when behavior management plans are needed.”
Along with associate professor of psychology Rick Gilmore, Wilkinson is trying to discover how these children see the world around them “through a series of eye tracking tests and communication interviews.”
The study is using AAC displays — or aided augmentative and alternative communication displays — which present symbols, text, and spoken audio to the subjects. AAC displays are used as a form of communications for people who can not necessarily rely on speech. The aim of the study is to improve these devices, which are essentially tablet computers, by mapping out how children with Down Syndrome examine and extract information from the displays.
“Our goal is to improve the design of AAC displays for individuals with DS through the study of eye tracking,” Wilkinson said. “Rarely used in DS research, eye tracking will reveal attention patterns and processes that typically go unrecorded in behavioral research.”
The study will being with eye-tracking research in laboratories with school-aged children, taking a look at reaction times and gaze patterns and mapping out visual attention. The second phase will insert social interactions into the mix, again utilizing eye-tracking but this time with a shared book-reading activity with a partner. The third phase will compare results from the prior two phases.
“We will explore the effects of the different display designs, first under controlled book reading conditions, then during a snack activity,” said Wilkinson. “We are hopeful one of the displays will enhance communication outcomes.”
Based on the study, Wilkinson hopes to be able to offer improvements to current AAC devices, making communication easier for children with Down Syndrome.
“The project will allow us to move the information gained during the project to a place where it will matter and open educational doors,” she said. “We’ll learn how kids with DS attend to their visual surroundings, and, by a simple re-design of the AAC display, hope to demonstrate consistent learning gains.”