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Autism and the iPad - what really works

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A lot has been said about how iPads could help autistic people. But what is just hype and what is actually useful?

Since the release of the iPad, parents and teachers of special needs kids have sang its praises. The iPad allows non-verbal autistic kids to communicate. It helps them with organization skills. It breaks them out of their shells. But is the iPad really all its cracked up to be? Well, yes and no.

A recent study has quantified one way some autistic people might be able to get something out of an iPad app. These subjects were given an iPad to help them at their jobs. The press release explains:

The cases involve participants in a 4-year randomized trial examining the use of iPod touch® PDAs as job coaching aids in the workplace. Each individual was given a vocational placement and paired with a job coach. An occupational therapist programmed an iPod touch® with an individualized suite of applications to provide support that included task reminders and lists, video prompts, tools for self-managing behavior, and other supports. The occupational therapist trained the participant and the job coach in using the device as a vocational aid.

The press release then goes on to describe three distinct cases in which the iPad helped adults assimilate in the workplace. Jeffrey, who worked at a custodian at a fast food restaurant, used the app to remind him to move from task to task, and create checklists so he wouldn't get overwhelmed. Another woman, Grace, used it to help her find and take a special bus that drove her to work. Lily, a third patient, used the app for auditory reminders of appropriate behavior at work. All three seemed to benefit from these tools.

And iPad apps really did take the autism world by storm when it was first released. There was the dad who designed an iPad app for his autistic son. And countless parents have sang the praises of these apps for their kids.

A year ago, 60-Minutes ran a whole segment called Apps for Autism. You can watch it here:

But some autism advocates have questioned the magical tone of these kinds of news stories. Speech pathologist Adam Slota writes:

It also seemed to prescribe the iPad as a panacea for autism treatment, you know, just give the kid an iPad and he’ll be on his way to communicating and that it’ll unlock an new and undiscovered portal into their minds that we never knew existed. Forget the fact that the successful use of AAC devices require training, especially for those with cognitive deficits, and forget that speech pathologists and special education teachers are needed to foster language development and literacy skills in order for the iPad to even be a viable option.

Autism bloggers at Autism Plugged In point out that just because an app worked for one child, doesn't meant it will work for yours:

The other thing to consider is that although many companies and marketing strategies make out that there is a definitive ‘answer’ to your child’s communication/social/behavioural issues this is rarely the case.  The special needs Apps on iTunes and Android are interesting, fun, helpful and are usually developed by highly qualified professionals in relevant areas, but they are only ever going to be another tool to add to your kit bag.  It may even be that the App itself does nothing more than provide you with 10 minutes peace, but that in itself is invaluable.

Even Dr. Tony Gentry, the lead researcher on the most recent iPad study, admits that this is not a cure all:

Dr. Gentry notes that a wide range of variables in personal characteristics, work settings, and duties make it difficult to make any generalizations from these three cases. However, they do demonstrate the versatility of PDAs as workplace supports for people with ASD. "This is an exciting time for anyone in the fields of education, physical rehabilitation, and vocational support, where we are seeing a long-awaited merging of consumer products and assistive technologies for all," he says. "Field-based research in real world environments is essential to help us determine how best to use these tools to help our clients live more rewarding lives."

Via: Eurekalert

Image: Brad Flickinger

Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure