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Using Mobile Technology to Facilitate Engagement with the Arts for Children with Autism and their Families

Show and Tell is an interactive visual story that helps children with autism familiarize themselves with the circus experience before they go, helping alleviate some of the anxieties associated with unknown experiences. The app can be used as a springboard into exploring other live performances and arts and cultural opportunities with family and friends.

Show and Tell was funded by The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, England, a £7 million funding programme supporting collaboration between arts and cultural organisations, technology providers, and researchers. Digital R&D Fund’s goal was “To enable use of digital technologies in the arts sector to engage audiences with art in new ways and/or to create opportunities for new business models for arts organisations.”

The project aim was to discover whether a preparatory visual story, delivered via a mobile app, could help autistic children familiarize themselves with the circus, helping to alleviate anxieties associated with unknown experiences, resulting in an enjoyable shared family experience. Tracy was Principal Investigator, working with Community Circus organisation Circus Starr and SEN app developer Therapy Box to devise, prototype and release an app for autistic children on mobile devices.

The diverse research partners forged the groundwork for a transdisciplinary approach which synthesised knowledge from Autism research and SEN technologies and applied these to the context of arts and culture. The project made a significant contribution to existing published research on how autistic children make use of technologies designed for them, and offered new insights which have application in future cultural, medical and technology contexts.

The project proposed two main research questions: Can the principles of the Social Story, used primarily in education contexts, be translated to an arts/leisure context? Would a visual story delivered via a mobile app help autistic children feel more prepared and less anxious about attending the circus?

The project took place over 14 months. Initial app development was informed by consultation with the Autistic Society and focus groups for user-experience feedback. The app incorporated audio-visual material from Circus Starr performances including ringside and exterior locations to provide a full preview of what to expect from a trip to the circus. App design incorporated autism-friendly design principles and interactive elements for personalisation. Project participants were drawn from families in North West UK. During Circus Starr’s autumn 2014 tour, participants downloaded the app, trialled it before their visit and gave feedback on their experience via the app and through follow up questionnaires and interviews.

85% of respondents agreed that using the app helped prepare their child ‘well’ or ‘very well’ for the experience of going to the circus with the visual story providing a familiar and trusted format for reducing anxiety. 63% of respondents found the app helpful in assuaging anxiety in their child during the circus visit.

The app won the National Autistic Society’s Best New Technological Innovation Award in 2015. Circus Starr continue to update and promote the app to their audiences, and an Android version was developed in 2016.

Show and Tell Digital R&D Fund for the Arts Final Report:

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