Thursday, March 01, 2007

"We looked at it [Autism] as a huge market opportunity"

Two New Brunswick newspapers, the Daily Gleaner and the Telegraph Journal, have published lengthy promotional features on Autism Pro, the internet software "solution" developed by New Brunswick Speech Language Pathologist Cynthia Howroyd. AutismPro is internet based software that purports to design individualized education programs for autistic children. "When subscribers sign up, the program asks them questions. "The software analyzes the answers and creates an intervention program out of its database," said Howroyd.

The Daily Gleaner article, "Capital keeps rolling in for autism software", featured an interview with Thomas Hayes, president and CEO of GrowthWorks Atlantic Venture Fund, who said he has a lot of faith in the company's product. The Venture Fund manager was very honest about his interest in the product: "As you learn more about autism and its growing prevalence and how expensive it is for kids with autism to be treated, how difficult it is to get access to treatment in certain jurisdictions ... we looked at it as a huge market opportunity, frankly," Hayes said.The "innovative use of technology and a huge potential market" sealed the deal, he said.

As a parent of a profoundly autistic child I have always been doubtful about the premise of Autism Pro. I had the opportunity, as a member of autism organizations in New Brunswick to review the concept behind the program several years ago and still have many questions about the program, notwithstanding the money making opportunities which Mr. Hayes find so exciting.

Environment. Children with autism are often very sensitive to different elements in their environment. It is often necessary to look at all the factors present in that environment to understand what might be impeding - or helping - in a particular case. Solving issues confronting autistic children is very much a hands on challenge.

Therapeutic Basis of Autism Pro
Issues surrounding the effectiveness of specific autism therapies are often controversial. TO DATE, only Applied Behavior Analysis, ABA, enjoys a wide base of support as an evidence based effective intervention for autism. Yet, to my knowledge, having met with Ms. Howroyd several times and having reviewed her public comments and literature on many occasions, Autism Pro has very little ABA basis and primarily features therapies which do not enjoy a consensus of professional support as effective evidence based interventions.

Accountability Who will be held accountable if use of the program is followed by regression or the development of new problems? Apparently Ms. Howroyd's Company will offer return of purchase money if purchasers are not satisfied with the product but will they be liable to compensate purchasers for any damage or harm caused to an autistic child if the application of Autism Pro results in setbacks?

Lack of Regulatory Oversight. Who in public authority will be exercising oversight of the application of Autism Pro in jurisdictions around the world?

Ms. Howroyd's company has been very skilled and aggressive in seeking financial support. When public funding initiatives for autism interventions are offered, from New Brunswick to Ottawa, Autism Pro has been there. Business, as Mr. Hayes pointed out, sees a huge market opportunity. Governments, hard pressed by demands for government provision of autism services, and attracted by the glamor of internet techonology, will be interested in Autism Pro as an easy fix. But will Autism Pro serve the best interests of autistic children?


Anonymous said...

Hi Harold. I think there is some potential good from Autism Pro for some ranges of autism. I am somewhat familiar with the program too and I know it would have been helpful for us with Alec's aspergers. I think mild cases of autism and asperger's may find it beneficial. I don't think there ever is a cookie cutter solution to everything but I also think that it would be a mistake to dismiss it at as well. Just my .2c worth;)

Unknown said...

Thank you for dropping by and commenting lisa.

You may well be proven right about Autism Pro's potential for helping higher functioning autism and Aspergers. Right now though Autism Pro is being sold very aggressively as an actual solution and there are no qualifications, at least in the promotional materials, placed on which autistic children might benefit from the program.

I agree that there is no cookie cutter solution. And I hope I am not twisting your words but that is one reason I am concerned about an internet program concept for addressing the needs of autistic persons when the solutions often require detailed and direct observation of the person, their environment, their history, etc.

Again I appreciate your input. I read your blog site regularly. Without fail you provide fresh, well reasoned, and perceptive observations about events both personal and public.

JohnL said...

I came to this post because I was interested in what folks were saying about Autism Pro. But, I'm now sidetracked by the comments. It's good to have a chance to read what others are saying!

Lisa, I have to agree that there is some potential good from Autism Pro, but I guess I'd have to say that about nearly any proposed perspective. That is, there is probably some (perhaps little, but little is still some) potential (unproven, but possible) good in Bruno Bettleheim's view of mothering and Autism (although, despite reading lots of Bettleheim's work, I've not found that bit of good). The potential for good is too weak a standard to guide decisions, in my view. I like Harold's view that hugs are good, but evidence-based practices are necessary.

Both of you dismissed "cookie-cutter solutions": I, too, doubt that there is any one prescribed set of activities that will suit all (or even 99% of) children and families. However, I would need to establish what counts as a cookie-cutter solution (CCS). If CCS refers to an absolute script from which a trainer must not deviate (including providing extra practice repetitions, variations in praise statements, faster or slower thinning of Rf schedules, etc.), then it's likely to be successful for only some or a few students. If CCS means (i) careful specification of goals and objectives based on a learner's present levels of performance; (ii) analysis of those objectives to establish what the learner must know and be able to do to meet the objectives; (iii) systematic, explicit teaching of those components to mastery and integration of them into coherent, fluent higher-order clusters; and (iv) repeated direct assessment of progress to ascertain whether the learner is meeting those objectives...well, I'd like to recommend that CCS.

Anyway, I've got other commentary about Autism Pro on EBD Blog. I better get back there and finish the posts.