Wireless communication devices help children with autism to understand and engage more in class

Staefa, Switzerland
Wireless communication devices help children with autism to understand and engage more in class

A study published in The Journal of Pediatrics has shown that sustained use of wireless communication devices can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder understand more speech in class, aid in their social interaction and improve educational outcomes.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition with a range of behavioural symptoms including impaired social interaction and communication difficulties. Children with ASD often also experience problems processing sound1-3, which can further exacerbate their social difficulties.

The study, The Use of Listening Devices to Ameliorate Auditory Deficit in Children with Autism4, is the first of its kind to explore the sustained use of wireless listening technology for children with ASD in mainstream classroom environments. Led by Gary Rance, PhD of The University of Melbourne, the research evaluated the monaural (single-ear) and binaural (two-ear) sound processing skills among a group of 20 children with ASD – and sought to determine the extent to which personal wireless listening systems (specifically, Phonak inspiro microphones and Phonak iSense receivers) could enhance these children’s listening difficulties.

“The systems provided significant listening-in-noise, communication and educational benefits,” said Rance, who is Associate Professor at The University of Melbourne’s Department of Audiology & Speech Pathology. “The children could hear the teacher’s words better, communicate with their fellow students more effectively, and were generally more engaged in classroom activities than those not using wireless listening technology. Most of the children also wanted to keep using their devices after the trial had ended.”

The research involved 20 children with ASD - 10 primary school students and 10 secondary school students - aged between eight and 15 years. A control group of age- and gender-matched children was also evaluated in order to test the authors’ baseline assumption that children with autism experience more difficulty processing auditory information than those without ASD2-4.

Rance and his team evaluated each child’s: auditory temporal processing (how the brain analyses sounds changing over time); spatial listening (how well both ears are used to localize and separate different sound sources); and functional hearing (speech understanding in background noise). Half (10) of the children with ASD then underwent a six-week device trial. During this period they wore Phonak iSense wireless receivers for up to seven hours per day, with teachers and parents speaking into Phonak inspiro transmitter microphones.

Wireless listening devices such as the Phonak inspiro/iSense systems used in the study - also sometimes referred to as frequency modulation (FM) systems - work by transmitting the words of a microphone-wearing speaker to small discrete ear-level receivers, bringing these words directly into the listener’s ear. This approach has already been proven to improve the speech understanding of children with cochlear hearing loss5, central auditory processing deficit6 and auditory neuropathy7.

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3 Groen WB, van Orzo L, tar Horne N, Winkles S, van der Gaga R-J, Butler JK et al. Intact spectral but abnormal temporal processing in autism. J Aut Dev Disord 2009;39:742-50.
4 Rance G, Saunders K, Carew P, Johansson M, Tan J, 2013, The Use of Listening Devices to Ameliorate Auditory Deficit in Children with Autism, The Journal of Pediatrics 2013; doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.09.041.
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