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The iPad: a Useful Tool for Autism

Updated on August 23, 2014

Computers, iPads, and Autism

Computers are useful for those with autism as they facilitate communication and aid in learning. In recent years, there has been some buzz in education and autism communities about the iPad. Like other computers, it is an effective tool for many people on the autism spectrum. Its flexibility and portability offer some additional advantages over laptops or PCs. The touch screen and layout make a tablet more accessible for children with coordination or learning difficulties; these children may find sliding and tapping easier than either typing or writing. A tablet, moreover, can be easily carried; thus it's helpful for calming and focusing children who are on the go.

The iPad can also be used as a communication board or augmentative communication device. Because of the customization options and because it's a 'cool tech device' that doesn't immediately mark a child as different, many see it as a more attractive option than the more traditional devices. Some children have been captivated indeed by the iPad, finding the motivation to master quite a few new skills in a short span of time.

I definitely would stop short of using the phrase I saw in 'the weekly' this morning: The iPad isn't a cure for autism -- I'm not sure 'cure' is even an appropriate term for a complex learning difference -- and there are autistic individuals whose abilities simply won't allow them to use an iPad or any other computer. Still it looks like Apple may have done something they didn't necessarily set out to do, which is provide one of the better adaptive learning technologies on the market.

On this page, I will share some research and resources that you may find useful if you are considering which communication and teaching tools to use with people on the autism spectrum.

Computer magic
Computer magic

Computers as Autism Teaching Tools

What's the buzz about computers and autism? It's a matter of brain wiring.

A person with typical neural wiring activates different brain systems when viewing a face than they do when viewing, say, a shrub. They notice subtle differences in facial features and expressions, even if they think those shrubs on the way to the bus stop all look the same. This is not necessarily the case for people on the autism spectrum; they may activate the same visual systems for faces as for inanimate objects. A person with autism may struggle to differentiate facial expressions -- or even to differentiate the faces themselves. Many people with autism feel more comfortable interacting with nonhumans -- even cartoon characters. They are often drawn to activity that is self-directed and predictable.

People diagnosed with autism have a range strengths and weaknesses as well as intelligence levels. Some communicate very well in writing even if their speaking skills are quite low. Many are visual thinkers and have strong technological and/or artistic skills. When engaged in a task, a person with autism may display a level of absorption and concentration that is lacking in the general population. And when he is strongly motivated, he may achieve far more than the expected.

Enter the computer. For many on the autism spectrum, computers have been a game changer, capitalizing on strengths and compensating for weaknesses.

Using iPads with Autistic Learners: a Success Story... and a More Mixed Success

I had some knowledge of computer-assisted learning for autism, but hadn't given much thought to the unique qualities of the iPad until I read an article in the Seattle Weekly. I was inspired to go online and learn more. In the blog post linked to below, we find the mom profiled in that news story, Shannon Des Roches Roca, writing eloquently of her son's experience with the device. She notes that he maneuvers it more easily than the iPod Touch and is far more engaged with learning. He has learned so many new skills that she sees the device as "a near miracle".

The article also includes a review by another special needs mom who has not found the device as life changing, but has generally positive things to say about it. The second mom reports that her daughter values the "coolness factor". She also notes that the device has a few flaws. One is the sound: Her daughter finds that the volume can be a little low when she uses it to speak in a crowded area. Another potential weakness is... its weakness. While relatively sturdy, it's not as sturdy as a communication board that's been specifically designed for special needs populations. (A person does have to exert some caution when using the device with youngsters who are prone to frustrated outbursts.)

We'll meet some more users -- through text and video -- further down on this page...

Cost: A Surprising Advantage?

The iPad isn't cheap -- with newer models ranging from about $500 to $900 dollars -- and yet this a good deal cheaper than many augmentative communication devices. For some people with communication difficulties, assisted communication devices still loom out of reach; thus the iPad's relative affordability is a draw.

In Autism and Apple, a parent writes of how the school district provided his nonverbal son with a $3000 ChatPC device... but not forever. When the young man reaches the age where the public schools will no longer be responsible for his needs, he will have to return it. Even with the additional cost of special needs apps to help the young man speak, the iPad still cost the family less than half as much. They have tried it, and consider it an effective communication tool.

On the subject of cost: Who should pay for augmentative communication devices? Some people are interested in donating iPads. Some believe insurance companies should foot the bill -- something they have been reluctant to do. Part of the reasoning is that are some people who would try to game the system. People aren't apt to fake the need for a wheelchair. An iPad, on the other hand, they might. But how do we put these devices in the hands of those who need technology to live more normal lives?

More Perspectives - From Family Members

Here is a father who didn't start out with the intent of exploring how tablet computers could be useful for autism, but made a fortuitous discovery. He was moved by how his autistic preschooler took to the Angry Birds app on his iPhone. He was so moved by his own child's response to the technology that he eventually decide to develop a communication app for autism.

Video: Child With Autism Using First Words App - On his iPod

Leo is the nine-year-old profiled in "The iPad: a Near Miracle for my Son with Autism". Here we find him happily engaging with his tablet, using the app "FirstWords". Watch his fingers slide as he moves letters across the screen.

iPad Donations for Kids with Autism: Danny's Wish

Danny's Wish has a campaign underway to put iPads in the hands of children with autism. You can donate an ipad at their site.

And what if you don't have -- or can't afford to purchase one? There are multiple ways to support the cause, through the Danny's Wish site, as well as through their fan page on Facebook.

More Foundations to Help Children with Autism

Many people have a vested interest in putting iPads into the hands of autistic children. Seven-year-old Asiedya grew tremendously with the aid of her iPad. Tragically, a house fire took her life. Her parents want to put iPads in the hands of other needy children with autism. You can help them continue the legacy.

Payment Controversies

Insurance/ payers have a history of favoring the expensive over the inexpensive when it comes to augmentative communication. That's because the expensive products have one purpose only and can't be used for entertainment.

Using the iPad for High Level Communication

Here's a bright teenager (now an author!) who can't talk and also has a hard time controlling bodily movements. His breakthroughs didn't begin with the iPad -- in the pre-iPad world of nine years ago, his mother began to grasp that the child who couldn't talk could spell -- but technology has made things easier.

Videos: Special Needs Learners and the iPad

Here is a view of Autismate, a multifunctional app.

New Ways to Help

The third annual Traverse Traveler scavenger hunt was in April 2014.* The date has come and gone, but you can still help.

You may even find (or want to start) a similar program in your own community.


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