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Autism and iPads: amazing things happen



James Kendrick passes along a story of an autistic boy, an iPad acquired by chance, and amazing interactivity between the two. Makes me think of Grace and something I saw on Friday.

The story from SFWeekly centers on BlogHer contributing editor Shannon Rosa and her autistic son Leo. After winning an iPad in a raffle, Shannon handed the device to her son to see if he would respond to it as he had to her iPod touch, which he found interesting but too small to handle. He took to it like a duck to water “spending 30 minutes at a time on apps designed to teach spelling, counting, drawing, making puzzles, remembering pictures, and more” to the stunned delight of his mother.

The full story delves well beyond this single anecdote, covering everything from the Rosas’ daily life to broader discussions on autism to several apps that Shannon and others use to teach and communicate with their autistic children, expanding on what Shannon covered on BlogHer. Having worked with a few autistic children in the past, I have experienced the smallest taste of what it must be like to deal with this way of life and can only imagine the elation Shannon must have felt when Leo started working away on digital puzzles and exercises. While apps like Grace, which we previously covered, turn iDevices into versatile non-verbal communication tools, the simple, intuitive way in which iDevices work allows autistic and other special needs children to do things on their own.

This reminds me of an entertaining dinner I had on Friday. In the back of the restaurant was a family engaged in an obnoxious dispute over something that sounded frivolous, but at an adjacent table, a young couple with a son who could not have been older than three were quietly enjoying their meal. The boy, who made not a peep the whole time, was completely engrossed with an iPhone, either 3G or 3GS, pausing whenever his mother moved to feed him. What’s more is he switched between at least three apps in the time I saw him, all on his own, moving the device and manipulating the screen with each. Whether autistic or not, it really is amazing to see a young child control such an advanced piece of technology so effortlessly.



  1. Chris Hickie

    08/16/2010 at 12:52 pm

    I’m a pediatrician, and I’ve seen this, too, as the mobile devices become more intuitive, and with bigger/better displays and as parents are willing to let their kids use them. These devices are patient in ways that most of us can’t be, which can be very helpful for autistic children, who vary so greatly in how the acquire information from their environment.

    On a non-related note, out of the blue, my droid just updated to Froyo (2.2). I wasn’t expecting that anytime soon. Won’t have time to try it out till later, but I guess this means flash 10.1 can be used?

  2. aftermath

    08/16/2010 at 1:01 pm

    Computers have been used for quite sometime to help Autistic children. In fact, there are some dedicated solutions designed with intentional benefit in mind. Life with an Autistic family member can be hard, and it’s a shame that more people don’t do better research. This chance miracle makes for a wonderful story, but it’s hard not to wonder how things might have been different had the family sought out a computer-based solution pro-actively, or at the very least included such references in their post of the experience (it’s a shame to think of all of the families who will now run out and buy iPads hoping for the same chance benefit rather than trying the well researched solutions).

    However, I think it’s terrible that people glibly promote “screen time” for kids under the age of five, especially given emerging research in the “plasticity” of young brains. Because of this malleability and the hyper-active synaptic demands that screen content presents compared to reality, there is now a theory that causally correlates pre-school (most previous studies were based on older children, for whom plasticity is no longer relevant) exposure to television and computers with the rising incidence of ADHD. Anecdotally, it’s also sad to watch children get disposed into devices rather than developing their social and emotional maturity by exploring and experiencing their familial relationships, which are supposed to be safe places for us to figure out about ourselves and our world. Look around you. An idiot can figure out how to use a phone, but so few can make eye contact with the people around you. I’m far less impressed with a child who can cope with the modeled paradigm of technology than I am with one who is poised around adults in the real world.

    • Sumocat

      08/16/2010 at 1:56 pm

      I wouldn’t be so quick to link screen time directly with conditions like ADHD. There are competing theories showing the link is indirect, the result of commercials pushing high-carb, high-sugar foods. A comparison with the UK and videos without ads indicates commercials themselves are the problem, interrupting the child’s attention span and interfering with its development. While it generally looks like the US-style of TV is no good, the jury is still out on the exact cause.

  3. Rorison Meadows

    08/16/2010 at 3:41 pm

    This is good news (even if I hate Apple as a company), but I just hope the fanatical (not empirical) supporters of garbage techniques like Facilitative Communication stay clear away from jumping on the bandwagon.

  4. Kristina Sgueglia

    08/19/2010 at 10:33 am

    It is truly a miracle what these iPads can do for children with special needs, particularly autism.

    The Danny’s Wish Foundation just recently created and launched our “iPads For Autism” campaign!

    Inspired in part by Shannon Rosa and by my own experiences with my brothers success with his iPad, our charity has committed to raising money to provide iPads for schools and individuals affected by autism!

    As you know, the IPad provides alternative communication and learning applications that allow Autistic children to flourish in tremendous ways. More importantly, the IPad gives those without a voice a chance to be heard.

    Join Danny’s Wish in fulfilling our wish of donating 100 IPad’s for schools and individuals with Autism! There are many ways you can help…

    We encourage you to spread the word about our fund raising campaign to friends and family! We also ask that you make a donation through any one of our donation channels. No contribution is too small or too large, and we really appreciate it! Your efforts and donation can change a child’s life. Together we can truly make a difference!

  5. Cammylhr

    08/22/2010 at 6:05 pm

    I am 14 and have autism if you know anyone who will give me one for free sence I don’t have enough to get please let me know.

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