Research and Development

Initial build and testing

Talk With Me was first developed in 2015 by Swati Gupta, Principal Research Scientist at Callaghan Innovation, in close collaboration with the Upland Unit (special needs unit) of Hillmorton High school, Christchurch, NZ, and the school's speech language therapist and teachers.

Feasibility study of Talk With Me testing children’s level of engagement with it

In 2016, a collaboration between Callaghan Innovation, University of Otago, and Hillmorton High Schools’s Upland Unit (Christchurch) conducted a feasibility study of Talk With Me, which showed that the level of children’s social interaction and engagement was superior with Talk With Me, in comparison to (1) the AAC device they use regularly, and (2) physical symbol based vocabulary cards which they also use regularly at home and at school.

Graham, H., Bond, A., McCormick, M., Hobbs, O., Yoo, C., Gupta, S., Mulligan, H., & King, M. (2016). A novel communication application to encourage social interaction by children with autism spectrum disorder. New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy, 44(1), 50-57.

Use of Technological Devices to Target Social Skills in ASD Therapy

In 2016, a Callaghan Innovation student project with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA analysed the need for a new technological communication application that improves social skills for children with ASD, conducting 25 stakeholder interviews with members of the ASD community in New Zealand and abroad. Our results indicate that a tablet application that focuses on developing communication skills and is customizable, collaborative, and culturally appropriate could meet the needs of the community.

J Smith, H Shevchuk, G Ardamerinos. (2016). Investigating the Use of Technological Devices to Target Social Skills in Autism Spectrum Disorder Therapy in New Zealand. Unpublished thesis, Bachelor of Science. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA

Informal intervention trials with Talk With Me

In 2016, with the help of Norman Barry Foundation and Kiwinet, we conducted multiple informal intervention trials in New Zealand and India in English and Malayalam language. These studies enabled the Talk With Me tool to be used in people’s natural environments according to their own time schedules and preferences. They provides valuable market insight into how practitioners would use this tool if they downloaded it from the app store, without any strict guidelines about when and how to use it.

Key results include:

  1. Over 20 minutes of continuous and independent conversation

  2. Minimal therapist intervention

  3. Excellent joint attention and cooperation

  4. Attempts to verbalise

  5. Expressions of joy

  6. Understanding of turn taking

  7. Minimal training and good memory retention of the tool’s use

  8. Their teacher commented that positive interactions are transferred to real-life skills (e.g. children now greeting each other in the class) which continue after the study.

  9. One teacher told us that it resulted in an “enduring friendship” between 2 children.

  10. One mother told someone known to us that “my daughter started talking overnight!” (this statement shows the mother’s enthusiasm).

  11. A father in India said that “my daughter asked me for the first time ‘Dad, I want to play, let’s go outside and play”

Their speech and language therapist commented that this was an astounding result for these children who normally have attention spans of up to 3 minutes at best, and very limited social interaction. They usually require high intervention and persuasion for any activity. They rarely work together independently and, previously, if left alone, they wouldn't communicate at all.

Proof of concept study to investigate Talk With Me at children’s homes instead of schools

In 2018, we concluded a proof-of-concept study in collaboration with University of Otago and Autism NZ, and with support from Callaghan Innovation, to investigate the use of Talk With Me at home and with parents. This was different from our previous trials which were all at schools and special needs centres and with therapists/teachers. We found that “children engaged with the app early on, but engagement decreased over the study period, primarily due to the limited number of conversations available to them, which were, for some children, either too hard or too easy or not interesting enough. Most families perceived their child to have gained increased confidence and participation at school, and improved turn-taking during conversations”. The study concluded that “Talk With Me appears to have potential for assisting children with ASD to develop communication and conversational skills. Further development to enable customisation of the app by families would increase its relevance to individual children’s needs and interests.”

To address these issues, we are taking appropriate measures in further development of the app.

Wilkinson, A., Edwards, A., Gray, M., Ranabahu, T., Steenkamp, M., Mulligan, H., Gupta, S., King, M. (2018). An app to encourage social interaction by children with Autism spectrum disorder: A proof of concept study. New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy, 46(1), 12-18.

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