By Gianna Palmer
When people refer to autism, they’re actually talking about a set of five developmental brain disorders known as autism spectrum disorders. The symptoms of autism and their intensity vary, but often include difficulties with communication and social skills.
Thirteen-year-old Jodie Singer, like many children with autism, is not conversational. She tends to repeat phrases and words over and over. Earlier this morning, before her school bus arrived, Jodie listened to children’s songs on her iPad.
A lanky bundle of energy, Jodie alternates between bites of Cheerios and excited hopping to the tune of Old MacDonald. Her mom, Alison Singer, says the iPad is able to hold Jodie’s attention in ways that other toys haven’t.
“She likes the farm a games, the baking cooking games, the animals games. So there’s certainly a lot of things that interest her on the ipad. But I think more importantly is she’s able to be independent. She can listen to music, she can watch youtube videos and she can do this independently. Which with other toys she really needs much more assistance,” said Singer.
Singer is also the founder and president of the Autism Science Foundation and keeps close track of emerging tools for kids with autism. She says the iPad has been a boon to the autism community. Kids really love it, she says, in many ways much more than other devices specially developed for them. Singer also points out that iPads can actually help some children communicate. For example, there are applications where a child can type in words, and the device will read them aloud. But Singer doesn’t see the iPad as a therapeutic in and unto itself.
“Think about it like a workbook. Some children can use workbooks independently, some children love to do workbooks, some children really gain great skills from doing , and some just do it for fun. It’s the same with an ipad. I mean an ipad can be fun, it’s something kids can do independently, and it can also be a very valuable tool in hands of trained, skilled therapist,” Singer says.
Dr. Howard Shane specializes in communication disorders, particularly with children on the autism spectrum,. Though Dr. Shane uses iPads in the autism language program he directs at the Children’s Hospital Boston, he agrees with Singer that the iPad is not, by itself a clinical intervention.
“The clinical procedure of choice is for the child to be looked at to see what their strengths are and their weaknesses and then try to find apps and hardware that’s going to match those abilities,” says Shane.
Shane says one of the most important things about the iPad is that it doesn’t cost nearly as much as the specialized medical computers that came before it.
“We used to, you know, we could justify suggesting 7,8, 9,000 dollar pieces of equipment that now, you have the same functionality in an iPad,” Shane says.
Shane and his colleagues at the Children’s Hospital Boston use many different technologies in their research into communication disorders. And as for the iPad—
“We think its emerging an tool and its going to be an important one, but its certainly not the only thing that we, the only arrow in the quiver,” said Shane.
Rhonda McEwen is trying to quantify the impact of that arrow. She is a professor at the University of Toronto, and is currently conducting phase two of a study examining touch technologies, including the iPod Touch and iPad. Her studies put these technologies into Toronto classrooms and worked with students with autism.
“We actually did measurements of baseline communication measurements before, during and after the study, and we see increases in their communicative ability over so many categories, but particularly in the areas of social interaction and peer-based interaction” McEwen says.
McEwen says that so far, her research supports putting iPad in classrooms with autistic children.
“The teachers have demonstrated that they have been able to find use for it as a supplement to their curriculum in all of the classes that it was introduced to,” McEwen says.
In the Singer’s Scarsdale home, Jodie is on her way out the door to the bus. After a morning spent playing with her iPad, she wants to take it with her, but her mom has her leave it behind. For now, the iPad is not a part of her school day.