The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders recently published a study examining the effectiveness of a Portable Digital Assistant (PDA) as an aid device for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. I was surprised to read that only a couple of studies have been conducted examining the potential utility of PDAs in autism. The portability of PDAs and the ability of these devices to provide visual and auditory commands (such as video prompts), should make these devices ideal tools in the implementations of behavioral strategies that involve the presentation of prompts.

Cyrano Communication Device for AutismIn order to evaluate the effectiveness of PDAs in autism, the authors taught 3  adolescents with ASD diagnoses to use the PDA to provide self-prompts while completing 3 cooking recipes (hamburger helper, individual sized pizza, and a ham & swiss sandwich). The 3 adolescents were selected because they met a specific inclusion criteria, which included having good fine motor skills (allowing them to manipulate the PDA), having good visual and auditory acuity, and having the cognitive skills necessary to recognize picture prompts. The adolescents were provided with a Cyrano Communication device programmed to provide picture, voice, and video prompts for each step of the cooking process.

The experiment used a multiple probe design that included the following steps for each recipe:

  1. Pre-training to learn how to use the PDA
  2. Cooking recipe without the PDA
  3. Cooking recipe with PDA

The following figure is the results from one of the participants. Notice how the percent correct reached 100 when the PDA was used.

Example of the Effectiveness of PDA use in Autism

The authors concluded that the devices resulted in a noticeable improvement in performance for all three participants.  The results suggest that PDAs may be very effective in helping persons with ASDs successfully complete tasks, such as those required at educational and/or work setting. However, this study was conducted with 3 individuals only. More research with much larger sample sizes is necessary to help us better understand if, and in what conditions, these devices may  be effective.

The reference: Mechling, L., Gast, D., & Seid, N. (2009). Using a Personal Digital Assistant to Increase Independent Task Completion by Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/

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5 Responses to PDAs for kids with Autism

  1. JulieL says:

    Nestor, was the PDA prompted to the next step by touch screen or the use of buttons on the PDA?

    Made me think of how Nintendo has a system for cooking instructions.

  2. JulieL says:

    Yes, it was the fine motor skills I was thinking of. Thanks for the answer, can’t access the article.

  3. Gimky Snowflake says:

    Dear Dr. Lopez-Duran,
    I really value your posts and read with interest. I am a mom of a child on the spectrum. I know this isn’t the right place to ask you a question (I am kind of new to this) but was wondering if you might be able to address all of the recent hype in oxytocin and if anyone is studying this and how it might help children/people with autism. Thank you so much. Gimky

    • Dear Gimky, I would recommend that you talk to your pediatrician about this topic. While there have been a number of studies examining oxytocin levels in children with autism, to my knowledge, none of these studies are treatment studies. That is, there are no published clinical trials of any oxytocin related treatments that would suggest that such interventions are effective or safe. Thank you for visiting Nestor.

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