App helps special students with Asperger's
By Rick Dean THE CAPITAL-JOURNAL
The junior high-aged kids are talking typical teenage smack during lunch when one jokingly tells another to go jump in a lake.
The youngster on the receiving end of the mild putdown looks puzzled.
“Why would I do that?,” he responds. “I can't swim.”
The group erupts with laughter, and the teen with Asperger's Syndrome — a disorder on the Autism spectrum characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction — walks away hurt, his embarrassment obvious.
Mark Bowers knows of many such encounters through his work as a pediatric psychologist. A University of Kansas and Topeka-trained clinician now practicing in Brighton, Mich., northwest of Detroit, Bowers has spent his career helping children, adolescents and young adults with social anxieties or development disorders deal with everyday situations they struggle to comprehend.
“These are kids who often are highly verbal, usually have pretty high IQs and do well academically,” he said of his Asperger students. “They also are kids who want to be social with others, but their brains are just not quite wired to understand social cues.”
Knowing that many of his students deal better with a computer than with a teacher or therapist, Bowers and his wife Kelly — also a licensed psychologist — turned to technology for a teaching aid.
They developed and released Sosh, a mobile-device application designed, in the words of its iTunes description, “to help tweens, teens and young adults improve social skills.” The program currently is compatible only with iPhones and iPads.
Among its some 60 pages of instructive, interactive features is the “What Did That Mean?” program in which a student can enter a slang phrase he could not comprehend — “Go jump in a lake” — and learn he was being advised to back away as opposed to actually getting wet. Other parts of the program let a student archive notes about how he felt upon hearing the comment, how he reacted and what he might do differently upon hearing it again.
“It's that very literal interpretation of a phrase that makes these kids end up getting teased or ridiculed or made to feel awkward,” Bowers explained. “Their peers can't understand why they're interpreting everything so literally.”
Asperger's Syndrome is a lifetime disorder, though many people learn to handle its symptoms as they grow into adulthood. The tunnel-vision tendency to focus on things that appeal only to the patient — as opposed to showing an interest in the activities of peers — is a characteristic that can be both positive and negative. Researchers today believe people who dealt with Asperger's at an early age included Wolfgang Mozart, Albert Einstein, Madam Currie and Thomas Jefferson.
Helping people deal at a young age is critical and the purpose of Sosh, Bowers said.
“We have to teach kids in the way they learn best, and this generation seems to deal well with technology,” he said.
The app is designed for a slightly older audience for whom social interaction disabilities are a particular concern.
“We felt the older kids were being left out, especially those on the Autism spectrum,” Bowers said. “They get a lot of attention and early intervention when they're young, but then we put them in school and hope they learn through support programs. We think (Sosh) is something sleek and stylish and cool for older kids that was missing in the market.”
Sosh is considerably more than a slang dictionary.
In sub-menus built around five Rs on the home page — relate, recognize, regulate, reason, relax — users can find exercises to help develop conversational skills: how to maintain eye contact, how far away to stand in a conversation, how to be a good listener. As some Asperger students tend to speak loudly, there is a Voice Meter — similar to the volume level displayed in basketball arenas — that shows a student how loud he is talking. There are relaxation techniques, both audio and visual, that can be helpful to a wide group of people.
“Parents tell us these exercises are helpful to them after a day of being stressed out from dealing with their kids with special needs,” said Kelly Bowers, a KU grad who did her psychology residency at Topeka's VA hospital.
The app has value for more than just Asperger students, noted Mark Bowers, who worked at Topeka's Menninger Clinic before entering the Masters program in clinical psychology at Washburn and the residency program in child psychology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“We created the app with Asperger's students in mind,” he explained, “but some treatments overlap for students with ADHD or social anxiety disorders, or people who are just shy.”