In the wake of the death of Steve Jobs, the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” aired a story titled “Apps for Autism,” about the increasing utility, and in some cases necessity, of devices like the Apple iPad in order to facilitate communication in non-verbal special needs children and adults. Journalist Lesley Stahl interviewed several families and teachers whose children and students currently employ iPads to communicate with family, friends, in the community and in schools.
Some applications detailed in the story were:
- Proloquo2Go: “provides a full-featured augmentative and alternative communication solution for people who have difficulty speaking”
- Autism Express: “designed to encourage people with Autism to recognizes and express their emotions”
- Look in My Eyes: “to help children make eye contact in a non-threatening way”
One fascinating aspect of the story was that children, who parents and teachers believed had no language whatsoever, began to demonstrate a vast vocabulary once they had access to the appropriate applications on the iPad. “What had been bottled up inside began to pour out,” one speech therapist stated. To illustrate this, a 10-year old non-verbal child, who was thought to have the IQ and attention span of a toddler, was presented with an iPad. When he interacted with various applications that tested academic subjects such as vocabulary, he revealed that he knew a great deal more than any of his teachers thought he did, identifying pictures and answering questions without any prompting from his teacher.
The story also detailed the very first study about the efficacy of the iPad as a learning device being conducted at the Beverly School in Toronto, which caters to severely developmentally disabled children. The teachers found that the students have much higher attention and engagement when using the iPad, and that it even improves social skills. An example was shown of having a student complete a math worksheet, who immediately disengaged when the worksheet was presented and made no eye contact with the teacher or the paper itself. However, once the iPad was presented with a numbers program open, the student immediately engaged and diverted all of her attention to the screen.
While one explanation for the success of devices like the iPad with children on the Autism spectrum can be attributed to a child’s preference for machines over engaging with others, or to the sensory input given by the iPad in the form of lights and sounds, the teachers at the Beverly School also theorized that the iPad is, in a word, constant. “The voice is constant, the pacing is constant, it waits,” whereas, a human being is unpredictable and out of their control.
The teachers also found that the device is not the right fit for every child, as some children do not engage with the device as it is intended, such as pressing random buttons and screens, but is very successful for the children that do respond to it.
Augmentative communication devices have been in use for many years for people with learning disabilities, however the iPad is the first popular device with multiple uses, that has been shown to be effective in facilitating communication, learning and leisure for the learning disabled, especially those on the Autism spectrum. As one parent described it, “We don’t know what the future holds for him in terms of speech. We’d like to think that one day speech will come…but if it doesn’t, this will be his voice.”
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