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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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In the year and a half since Cabrera has been visiting, he has noticed advances in Leo's independence. Leo can now make a sandwich, brush his teeth, tolerate visitors, and use the bathroom on his own. Before getting the iPad, he wasn't very good at using his fingers, Cabrera says, "but look at him now."

Leo flies through apps and settles on one that helps him learn to count. "You can put anything he likes on there," Cabrera says. "Music, movies, educational apps. He can be on it."

Cabrera is an instructional aide for a class of autistic children at the Morgan Autism Center, a nonpublic school in San Jose. There is already one iPad in his classroom, and in the fall, the center will bring in several more. "We are seeing the same results we have seen with Leo," he says. "The kids are actually enjoying educational tasks."

Because children with autism often become agitated when they feel out of control, or when they don't know what will come next, they require visual schedules, or pictorial representations of the events in their day.

Prior to the iPad, those schedules were created manually. For teachers, that meant cutting and laminating pictures, then gluing them to Velcro strips. For students, it meant using the same images each day.

On the iPad, visual schedules — including interactive dragging, animation, and cool sounds — can be quickly put together using the First-Then app.

Rosa has been using this app to show her son when to expect mealtimes. In addition, she's using Stories2Learn to demonstrate how she would like Leo to behave at the dinner table. She has created a "social story," pairing photos of food with audio explanations and text. Leo has to touch the screen to move through his story; with any luck, this multimedia learning approach will make an impression.


Apple has remained characteristically silent with the news media on the "quiet revolution" its products have started in the autism community. Although a woman with an Apple e-mail address who claimed to be a representative for the iPad responded to an inquiry from SF Weekly, she refused to speak on the record.

But the company has been receiving plenty of feedback — alongside requests for discounts and donations — from parents with special-needs children. Meanwhile, health insurance companies have been hesitant to cover Apple's technology, which they consider primarily recreational, partly due to a fear that those without true medical need might try to game the system.

That isn't to say that the iPad is perfect for children with autism. For one thing, the built-in battery doesn't last forever. There are sometimes inexplicable software glitches that can crash the system. Most problematic might be its durability: One bad tantrum, and there goes the screen. Some on the autism spectrum lack manual dexterity, or are simply not capable of learning how to use a computer.

The iPad — a mainstream consumer device — was not created for people with autism, says Joanne Kaufmann, communications manager for Dynavox, one of the industry leaders in special-needs communication devices.

Mike Pereira, the director of clinical services at the California Autism Foundation, is pleased the iPad is portable and engaging. But he cautions that it can't ensure a child will be better able to learn. "It's no different than using a personal computer," he says. "It's a good tool, but it's just that."

Pereira hopes that parents can keep things in perspective. "I don't think there's anything revolutionary about any new technology," he says. "The revolution is being conducted in the classrooms and in determining causality. ... That's where the money and the effort should be."

Every year, millions of dollars are spent researching genetic and environmental factors that could be associated with autism. There has been some recent success in identifying certain abnormalities in the DNA.

That's important research, says prominent autism expert Matthew Goodwin, the director of clinical research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, but it doesn't improve quality of life for people who have autism now.

Goodwin finds the machines created by Dynavox expensive, archaic, and embarrassing to carry around. The bulky, boxy machines cost $5,000 to $10,000, and weigh 4 to 6 pounds. "We're charging families a tremendous amount of money for grossly inadequate devices for people to communicate with," he says.

At the Media Lab, Goodwin is about to launch a large-scale project examining what the iPad — which he refers to as "sexy" — and other new technologies can do for people with autism. "In my mind, the iPad is not the end-all be-all, but it is currently a very appealing system given its size, rich screen display, and processing power," he says.

The utility of the iPad as a communication device will have to be proven via scientific testing, Goodwin acknowledges, but he's also interested in how it could help revolutionize the way behavioral science is conducted. "Gathering behavioral data on mobile devices like the iPad would help us get outside the laboratory and observe life where it happens — in the real world," he says. It would also allow many more people with autism, including those who have difficulty taking part in laboratory assessments, to contribute data.

Goodwin sees numerous possibilities for the iPad. He loves the idea of hooking it up to a discreet wristband being developed in the Media Lab that could wirelessly monitor physiological arousal. The iPad could then have a sense of an autistic child's frustration level, and when the child became upset, the device could automatically introduce something calming. Maybe it would be music. Maybe the iPad would tell the child to take a deep breath.

The technology has the potential to make autistic children's lives easier, Goodwin says. But if the devices are proven successful, they might also be able to show society the unrealized potential in children with autism.


On a recent Monday afternoon, Rosa and her children were on another trip to the Ferry Building, essentially on a mission to see whether the iPad has taught Leo to better control himself around food.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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