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Autism and the iPad: A New Route to Communication?

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Over the last year or so, a “quiet revolution” as the parents of autistic children are calling it, has emerged. iPads and their applications are starting to offer new routes to communication for these children who are otherwise locked within themselves.

Autism is a disease affecting roughly 1 out of every 100 children in the world, according to the Center for Disease Control.  Those with the disease range from brilliantly intelligent if somewhat eccentric, well-adjusted individuals to having no ability to communicate whatsoever and becoming very violent when agitated or uncertain in their surroundings.

A new voice for those without

It is in the area of communication where the technology of the iPad comes into play.  Apple has been very quiet about the use of their new technology as a therapeutic tool for those with communication disorders and special needs.  This is expected: it’s very difficult for a company to make any kind of comment about such things without it sounding like a bold medical claim that can’t be solidly backed up.

It is becoming clear, though, that there’s a groundbreaking impact being made.  Thanks to specialized applications, parents, teachers and therapists are able to work on specific areas of development from behavior tracking and modification to teaching children to spell and do math problems.  The biggest areas of implementation that have been tracked are:

  • Communication
  • Behavior Modeling
  • Activity Planning

The iPad as Assisted Communications Device

Thanks to the many applications on the market for this particular issue, such as Touch2Talk and TapSpeak Choice, those with autism can now communicate with those around them using a device that uses a natural human sounding voice.  This mean the child does not draw attention to themselves with the typical “Stephen Hawkings” type voice one normally finds in text-to-speech and other mechanical devices.

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These applications let the user tap stock or uploaded photos of commonly asked for and used items, which is spoken back in a clear voice audible to those around them.  Children and adults who were otherwise unable to have a voice of their own are now able to communicate with others for their basic needs, unlocking a world of experience that was nowhere in sight previously.   All of this comes at the cost of the iPad ($500 – $800) and then the application (free to $200), making it far more affordable than various voice-box type devices that don’t have nearly this level of functionality.

Behavior Modeling

For some with autism, simple things like hand-washing and proper table manners are difficult concepts to grasp.  This can result in anxiety, leading too often to violent “meltdowns” that can last for hours.  Through the use of applications that allow users to create a story with photos, text and audio, a parent or teacher can create a story, modeling appropriate behavior for a given task, such as hand washing.  The person would watch the short story; each step animated to show exactly what is done, broken down into steps and narrated by a familiar voice.  While it must be used with repetition, the fact that autistic people are highly visual learners means this tool will help them to begin learning new skills with a predictable story to go with them.

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What causes people with autism some of the biggest problems is anything unpredictable.  For example, people’s emotions and facial expressions are often confusing to autistic people and, because of this unpredictability, frightening.  The iPad offers them the ability to control how fast they receive information about a given task through tapping and touching the screen to progress from one slide to the other.  Children will often find this level of control to be both soothing and engaging, and parents will find it an excellent tool for teaching new skills.

Activity planning and visual scheduling

Because of their low tolerance for change, often handling things like doctor’s appointments or a first day of school after summer vacation can be exhausting for everyone involved.  Applications like “First, Then” allow the parent/therapist to make a visual representation of the day, serving as a reminder to the person with autism of what is to happen each day and in what order.  It gives them a sense of security to know what will be happening around them.  The more predictable each day is, the better off they feel.

Life with autism can be a great trial both for those afflicted and for their caretakers.  Psychologists are constantly on the lookout for anything that makes things easier for all involved.  Even this young into its existence, studies about how the iPad helps children with autism to come out of their shells and experience the world around them are already being released.  The media has already started to notice as well, and online communities are forming around the idea.  The “iPad for Autism” page on Facebook has more than 700 “likes”.

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No one is rushing to say that the iPad is any miracle cure for autism.  Autism has resisted anything close to a cure since its original designation.  Yet, there is early evidence that use of it might have the potential to improve the lives of those affected by offering lines of communication that were heretofore closed.  It bears repeating that even if this winds up being true, it will not work for all those with autism.  All cases are different.  There are those so deeply affected that using any sort of computer is simply not an option.

Nonetheless, it would appear that there is a good possibility that those families and educators who are working with autism might now have one more tool in their arsenal.  When combined with traditional therapies, such as speech and occupational therapy, we have the rounding out of a potential new path of approach for these individuals.  It’s no small benefit that this one includes the use of new and “cool” looking technology that will allow them to use it while still fitting in, helping to strengthen their self-confidence.  With increased confidence comes the possibility of future independence and a more fulfilling life.  Whether Apple intended to or not, they may have stumbled onto something greater here than even Steve Jobs might have imagined.


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