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.

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."

Leo has plenty of toys, including this circular balance beam, but nothing tops the iPad.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Leo has plenty of toys, including this circular balance beam, but nothing tops the iPad.
Leo’s therapist, Victor Cabrera, comes over four times a week for respite hours.
Kelly Nicolaisen
Leo’s therapist, Victor Cabrera, comes over four times a week for respite hours.

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.

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.

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