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Personal digital assistants as cognitive aids for high school students with autism: Results of a community-based trial

by Tony Gentry, Joseph Wallace, Connie Kvarfordt and Kathleen B. Lynch

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Gentry, T., Wallace, J., Kvarfordt, C. & Lynch, K. (2010). Personal digital assistants as cognitive aids for high school students with autism: Results of a community-based trial. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 32(2), 101-107.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine the efficacy of personal digital assistants (PDAs) as task management tools in a sample of transition-age high school students with autism.

Method: The group included twenty-two high school students selected from locales across the Commonwealth of Virginia, all of whom carry a diagnosis of autism and exhibit difficulties in performing everyday tasks due to cognitive-behavioral problems. Participants were trained by an occupational therapist to use PDAs as task management tools and participants and their parents completed self-assessments of occupational performance (using the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure (COPM)) before training and eight weeks after training concluded. At the post-assessment, PDAs were examined for recorded appointments and other entries, as evidence of participants’ usage, and participants were asked to demonstrate programming the PDA for reminder alarms and other functions, as a measure of their retention of training.

Results: Eight weeks after completion of training, the group demonstrated statistically significant improvement on COPM occupational performance and satisfaction with occupational performance scores, all PDA calendars showed reminder alarms scheduled for each day of the week across the eight week post-training period and all participants demonstrated the ability to respond to reminder alarms appropriately. Also, eight weeks after training, most participants (18 of 22 or 82%) were able to program device software, as trained, demonstrating retention of training and suggesting everyday use of the device. All participants attested to everyday device use and said that the device had improved their independence in performing functional activities.

Conclusion: A brief training intervention utilizing PDAs as cognitive aids is associated with improved self-ratings of performance and satisfaction in everyday life tasks among a group of high school students with autism. This group also demonstrated retention of training when reassessed eight weeks later, and their devices showed calendar entries across the eight weeks that suggest everyday use.

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