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.

But that day, Leo located and clicked on the icon for the Draw Free app and selected a blank canvas. He touched his index finger to the screen, swung it in a half circle, and repeated the motion several times, thickening the arc. Finally, he scribbled small circles on either side to represent clouds. Then he drew an umbrella. Then he drew a happy face.

"This is only after a month," Leo's father said. Craig Rosa works as a producer for KQED's multimedia science program, Quest. He believes his son's interest in the iPad has lengthened his attention span. "It gives you hope, and you begin to expect more instead of less."

But there's a reason the Rosas aren't quite calling this a miracle. There have been times when Leo loved a new toy for a few days or weeks, then never looked at it again. It's hard to say what he's really capable of learning. They don't want to overhype the effects of the iPad, especially before finding out whether science will back them up.

Sometimes Leo gets frustrated around mealtime, especially when his favorite food — bread — is involved.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Sometimes Leo gets frustrated around mealtime, especially when his favorite food — bread — is involved.
Leo shows his affectionate side.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Leo shows his affectionate side.

Rosa has been running a little study of her own on Leo. Using an app called Stories2Learn, she is trying to teach him to eat like a little gentleman.


In winning that raffle contest, Shannon Rosa inadvertently stumbled on a cutting-edge treatment that scientists, therapists, application developers, and parents around the world are only beginning to use.

In Pennsylvania, developer Seema Patel is working at the Autism Center of Pittsburgh on an iPad app that will challenge children with autism to identify the emotions of a robot named Popchilla. In Toronto, a profoundly autistic and nonverbal girl is using iConverse on the iPod Touch to tell her mother where she wants to go shopping.

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.

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