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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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Page 5 of 6

Leo eyed the bag containing his sticky bun as the family headed back into the chill of the San Francisco summer. They took over a small bench with views of the incoming ferries as Rosa whipped out the iPad. It was time to review Leo's social story about food.

Sitting next to her son and demanding his full attention, Rosa scrolled through the pictures and read the text below them out loud. "Sometimes other people have food that I like, but I do not reach for other people's food. No." she read. On the display, Leo viewed a picture of his friend, Katie, with chocolate cake.

On the next screen, Leo viewed a picture of himself accepting food. "It is okay for me to eat food other people offer me. Yes."

Mother and son had gone through this story at lunch and dinner over the past three days. Rosa said Leo had shown improvement. He had stopped grabbing at the food of others — major progress.

He looked expectantly at the bag, and raised his hand, as if in a classroom. Shannon broke off a fragment of cinnamon bun and handed it to Leo. He quickly engulfed it, bit after bit. When the bun was gone, Rosa made a show of crumpling the bag and tossing it in the nearby garbage bin. Otherwise, Leo might wonder if there was more.

Then his older sister, Gisela, unintentionally sabotaged the experiment. She offered Leo a giant piece of apple turnover, which he willingly accepted and ate fast. Crumbs settled on his face, hands, and lap, as well as the ground beneath the bench. When Leo finished eating, he gazed at the garbage bin and then at the ground.

When India began chasing pigeons, temporarily distracting Rosa, Leo made a play for the crumbs on the ground. But he was too slow.

"No!" Rosa cried. "No! No!" She picked him up off the ground as it became clear that Leo still had a way to go in becoming a gentleman eater. Perhaps knowing he had disappointed his mother, he gave her a giant hug.

Then he sat down and began to get agitated. Rosa handed him the iPad, but he seemed uneasy with it. He opened First Words and began to spell "puppy," then closed the app. He turned the device in his hands, opened a different app, then closed that, too.

He then pushed the iPad aside and hit himself in the head a few times. Hard.

"He's stimming," his mother explained, meaning that his Risperdal was wearing off. She scrolled to the song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and Leo looked out at the boats.


As the Rosas have learned, there are no miracle cures for autism. Anybody who claims to have one is far more likely to have a money-making strategy that preys on vulnerable and desperate parents.

To combat that, Shannon has started a website, the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. Its daily posts give parents information the Rosas didn't have when Leo was diagnosed. It also debunks several myths about autism — for instance, that 80 percent of married couples attempting to raise an autistic child end up divorcing. Another recent entry questioned the conventional wisdom of avoiding medications.

Rosa's site encourages parents to remember that the autism spectrum is wide and mysterious, and that things that work or don't work for one child often have no relevance to another.

There is, however, one thing that nearly every expert interviewed for this story agreed on: Children with autism usually have a narrow range of interests, so they need additional motivation to learn. Research and anecdotes concerning the iPad and iPod suggest that the devices grab the children's attention.

Another thing worth remembering: The progress of these children is measured in small steps.

A couple of weeks ago, Rosa and Leo headed home from Seattle, where they had spent two days on a boat. (A social story prepared Leo for this ride, which went smoothly, his mother says, because he knew what to expect.) Her husband and the girls were staying longer to partake in activities they knew Leo wouldn't enjoy, so Rosa and her son were flying back together.

When it was time for them to board their plane, the flight was delayed, supposedly for just 10 minutes. Then an announcement said it would be another 10 minutes. This unexpected change was problematic for Leo, because Rosa had told him he could not eat Nutter Butter cookies until they were in the air. Because their flight might be ready at any time, she was unable to go and buy him another snack.

Leo was getting cranky, which scared Rosa. She worried he might have another airport meltdown, like the one that had that once ended their family vacation. Her only hope was the iPad.

She took it out and opened iEarnedThat, which allows the user to divide a photograph into any number of animated puzzle pieces. As the puzzle is completed, players earn rewards. Leo usually does puzzles of about 15 pieces. Rosa bit her lip and created one with twice that many. "I wasn't sure he would have the patience," she said.

For the next half-hour, he sat quietly and finished the puzzle. Then they boarded the plane, and Leo got his Nutter Butter.

Not only did the iPad help them avert a crisis, but Rosa also found out that her son was capable of going one step further in completing a puzzle. He was up for the challenge. With every small advance Leo makes on the iPad, hope swells within his parents.

They find themselves wondering what else he can do. Beyond the progress Leo will make, the iPad also gives them a window into the enigmatic mind of their son. That's something more than a near-miracle.

Taylor Friedman contributed reporting to this story.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell

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