An Oscar-Nominated Film Inspires a New Approach to Autism

Suskind says about a hundred families have been testing the app, which is marketed by The Affinities Project, a privately held company that he formed. Response has been enthusiastic, he says. “There are studies that indicate that children on the spectrum often feel more comfortable talking to an animated character or an entity that is not overstimulating them with confusing gestures and, in many cases, sounds that they have trouble processing.”

Suskind firmly believes any affinity—even something as dry as maps or train schedules—can become “a pathway, not a prison” if tapped with imagination and perhaps the help of something like Sidekicks. “Think about maps,” he says. “Maps are the two-dimensional renderings of all humanity and have been for thousands of years. A map is not only geography and topography—it is also identity, it’s where you sit in the world.” Families with a map kid can tap this affinity, if they “learn to speak map.”

Suskind is eager to see if the Sidekicks app will prove to be clinically useful as well as fun and engaging. To that end, the first formal study of the technology will kick off sometime this year.

Kirstin Birtwell, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Lurie Center for Autism, will be overseeing a pilot study involving 30 children with ASD. Half of them will get 12 weekly therapy sessions involving the Sidekicks app. Birtwell’s research team will then look for effects on emotional regulation, expressive speech, social communication and problem-solving.

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