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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
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Netherlands-based company AssistiveWare has developed Proloquo2Go, one of the iPad's most popular education apps. It allows users to select and align photographs representing words, which the iPad (or iPod Touch) will speak for them. As of last week, Proloquo2Go ranked No. 83 in the United States out of thousands of education apps.

In Australia, Canada, and the United States, small-scale scientific studies are already under way. In 2008, "iPod Therefore I Can: Enhancing the Learning of Children with Intellectual Disabilities Through Emerging Technologies" monitored the progress of 10 autistic children on iPod Touch at school in Victoria, Australia. One boy who had been struggling for years to learn how to wash his hands was shown photographs of himself doing it correctly on the iPod, while voiceovers and pictorials reinforced his behavior. "It was not long before he was washing his hands successfully," the study reported.

Another student with behavioral problems showed an attitude improvement when given an iPod. Feeling cool, the boy began "grooving round the playground."

About 60 percent of the educational goals set for the study were met. The researchers concluded that participating students and their families would have "greater potential to live healthy, fulfilling, and productive lives."

Another study conducted in the United States and published last year in Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions found that teaching autistic students desired behaviors with instructional demonstrations via the iPod, also known as video modeling, improved their ability to move between classrooms without wandering off or hitting each other. The study found the iPod was optimal because video clips could be easily repeated, widely distributed, and watched anywhere.

So far, only one study is looking at the newer iPad. "Touch Technologies in the Classroom" is under way at Beverly Junior Public School in Toronto. Rhonda McEwen, an assistant professor at the iSchool at the University of Toronto who is running the study, introduced iPods and iPads into six classrooms of autistic students at the school in February.

McEwen is still gathering data, but she says the feedback from a initial round of teacher interviews has been largely positive. One teacher said students' attention spans seemed to be lengthening. Another had tears in her eyes when she explained that she had been working with a boy for two years, unsure of whether he understood language. "With the iPod, for the first time, he was able to demonstrate that he did understand," McEwen says.

Although students with autism typically don't socialize with each other, a third teacher told McEwen that one student sat beside another to work on a language program. "They looked at it together," she said. The teachers agreed that although the students had few interests, they were interested in the iPad.


A yellow school bus winds through the hilly suburbs of Redwood City, then pulls over outside a spacious Tudor revival home. Inside, Rosa stops midsentence and tilts her head. "Leo," she whispers, and flies out the front door.

She greets her son as he steps off the bus, and takes his large backpack and cap. He's dressed in a tie-dye shirt and a five-point harness to keep him seated during the bus ride. He is inexplicably barefoot.

"Are you hungry?" she asks, knowing very well that he is. He embraces her, and she sees that once again he has been seeking out dirt. "You need to wash your face, dude," she says.

Clearly excited to be home, Leo books it to his backyard play area, where there is a pool, a trampoline, a rocking horse, a large swing, and toys galore. "This whole house is set up for Leo," she says.

The Rosas used to live in a smaller home across town, but when things with Leo began to deteriorate, they knew they needed a different setup. "We got this house so that I could see him from anywhere," Rosa says.

Although the house is tidy and welcoming, a close look reveals abundant evidence of Leo's destructiveness. Along the banister that runs up the stairs, several pegs have been displaced; he kicked them out. Cabinet doors have been dislodged, walls have been scraped, and the living room couch springs have ruptured. His mother doesn't really even notice the damage, she says, other than when guests are here.

"Want a sandwiss," Leo says. His mother asks what kind, already knowing the answer: peanut butter. She asks anyway, because when Leo wants food, there is an opportunity to get him to speak. He seems to realize that the fastest way to get the food is to answer questions as best he can.

When she places the food in front of Leo, he goes to town on it.

"Small bites, please," she says. He ignores her. "Leo, small bite."

After eating, Leo runs to his room and reemerges naked, carrying his swim outfit of trunks and a long-sleeved white shirt. His mother helps him dress, then secures goggles over his eyes. He backs into the pool and immediately begins splashing wildly, then swimming adroitly in patterns. "He's like a little naiad," Rosa says.

Leo used to drink the pool water and then have "accidents," she remembers, but he mysteriously stopped. That's common. Leo will be intensely interested in something, and suddenly he just won't be. "Last year he was all going for dive toys," she says. "This year he [couldn't] care less."

The Rosas fear this could someday happen with the iPad. But for now, Leo is absorbed in it.

Quietly perched on the couch after his swim, Leo practices animals' words, which have recently become his favorite. "S! W! A! N! Swan!" the device announces as he lines up the letters, then it quacks. As Leo keeps himself occupied, Cabrera talks with a reporter about the boy's progress.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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