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iHelp for Autism 

For autistic children, the new iPad is an effective, portable device for teaching communication and social skills. It’s also way cool.

Wednesday, Aug 11 2010

View more photographs in the iHelp for Autism slideshow.

Three weeks had passed since Shannon Rosa had glanced over the numbers on her tiny blue raffle ticket. Like many other parents, she had agreed to cough up $5 not because she thought she had any real chance of winning, but to support the school.

Now, as she sat in her Honda Odyssey in a Redwood City parking lot, about to pick up some tacos for the family, her cellphone rang. It was the school secretary. Rosa had won the raffle.

Alone in her van, she screamed. Then she drove straight to Clifford School to claim her prize: a glistening new iPad.

Although Rosa already owned an iPod Touch, she had purposely held off on the iPad. She isn't an early adopter; she likes to wait until the kinks are worked out. But for $5, she didn't mind taking the iPad home one bit. Maybe Leo would like it.

Leo is Rosa's 9-year-old son, and when people ask her about him, she is mindful to explain him in a way that will set appropriate expectations. He is a boy with intense autism, she says. He is not conversational, he learns very slowly, and he has been prone to violent outbursts. He is essentially a triple-sized toddler. Leo had shown interest in the iPod Touch, but its 3.5-inch screen was difficult for his fingers to navigate.

For all those reasons, Rosa had no expectations when she handed her son the iPad — a half-inch-thick, touch-screen tablet computer three times the size of its smaller cousin, the iPod. Though scrolling through the icons is easy for most users, the device was not created with special-needs consumers in mind.

So when Leo took it in his small hands as if it were an old friend, and, with almost no training, whizzed through its apps like a technology virtuoso, his mother gasped in amazement. After he began spending 30 minutes at a time on apps designed to teach spelling, counting, drawing, making puzzles, remembering pictures, and more, she sat down at her own computer.

"With the iPad, Leo electrifies the air around him with independence and daily new skills," Rosa typed into an entry for BlogHer, a blogging network of women for which she edits and writes. Her blog was one of the first to bring widespread public attention to what one expert has called "a quiet revolution" for the autism community.

Since the iPad's unveiling in April, autism experts and parents have brought it into countless homes and classrooms around the world. Developers have begun pumping out applications specifically designed for users with special needs, and initial studies are already measuring the effectiveness of the iPod Touch and the iPad as learning tools for children with autism. Through the devices, some of these children have been able to communicate their thoughts to adults for the first time. Others have learned life skills that had eluded them for years.

Though there are other computers designed for children with autism, a growing number of experts say that the iPad is better. It's cheaper, faster, more versatile, more user-friendly, more portable, more engaging, and infinitely cooler for young people. "I just couldn't imagine not introducing this to a parent of a child who has autism," says Tammy Mastropietro, a speech pathologist based outside Boston who uses the technology with numerous clients. She sees it as a game changer for those with autism, particularly those most severely affected.

Rosa agrees. "I don't usually dabble in miracle-speak," she says, "but I may erect a tiny altar to Steve Jobs in the corner of our living room."

Hand in hand, Shannon Rosa, Craig Rosa, and their children, Leo, India, and Gisela meandered through the Ferry Building in San Francisco one recent afternoon. Amid the wafting aromas of strong coffee and freshly baked breads, Leo broke free from the grasp of his sisters. He skipped sideways, beat himself on the stomach, and squealed.

After finding a table, Rosa began to unpack some Acme Bread items. Leo went wild. He snatched his croissant, tore at it, and stuffed the pieces in his mouth faster than he could chew. He grabbed at the food in front of his family. He ducked under the table and attempted to eat off the floor. "More, please," he said frantically. "Thank you, please."

For the Rosas, outings like this can be a challenge. Without the iPad and its ability to occupy Leo, the excursion would be near impossible. In particular, he has a hard time behaving himself around food, which is typical for a child "on the spectrum," a commonly used phrase for what is formally referred to as autism spectrum disorder. Mostly, though, people just call it autism.

Scientists know little about autism, but in general they agree that the developmental brain disorder manifests in three ways: communication deficits, social incompetence, and obsessive behaviors. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control found that one out of nearly every 100 children born in the United States was on the spectrum.

Some on that wide-ranging spectrum become productive, happy, and even brilliant adults. Often those people are said to have Asperger syndrome, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Others require constant supervision and exhibit severe learning difficulties throughout their lives. The care of an autistic person over his or her life span runs more than $3 million. Whether they are high- or low-functioning, children with autism tend to be visual learners who gravitate toward technology and screens. They are less adept at recognizing human faces and expressions.

"It's not uncommon that autistic children will panic because they can't find mom," says neuropsychologist Robert Schultz, who is also the director of the Center for Autism Research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Additionally, he says, these children tend to process language more slowly than other children, which can cause confusion and anxiety.

That may be a reason that those with autism tend to prefer interacting with inanimate but engaging objects like the iPad. What happens on an iPad's screen is predictable. Humans — particularly those making cryptic sounds and faces — are not.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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