IPads and Autism: A Perfect Match?

autism app for that logo

This article was contributed by Amy Perry, an Autism Resource Specialist for the Autism Society of North Carolina. A version of the article was originally published in the summer 2013 edition of  the Spectrum magazine.

For those who would like to learn more about autism and iPads, Amy Perry will present a workshop during the ASNC annual conference, “Autism: Planning for Success,” Feb. 21-22 in Charlotte. For more information about the conference or to register, click here.

On April 3, 2010, Apple released the first generation iPad. Steve Jobs called it a “magical device,” and in many ways, that is exactly what it is: a slate of glass possessing the power of a computer, the vast content of the Internet, and a bottomless well of software applications or “apps.” The iPad literally puts the world at your fingertips, requiring only the operator’s fingers and imagination. Simply put, the real magic of the iPad is that it is truly a blank slate, designed to be customized by each user for his or her unique needs. It was clear to everyone that this new and powerful technology had the potential to be world-changing, but few knew just how many worlds it would change for those with autism.

The iPad is, in many cases, a natural match for people with autism. Stories are told every day of people who had been locked in their own worlds, unable to communicate, finding a portal in the iPad to reach out and interact with their families for the first time. Children who were thought to have severe intellectual disabilities are able to show intelligence and awareness no one thought was possible. A child who refused to hold a pencil or write on paper now draws and writes freely on the iPad using the magic of his fingertip. What is it about the iPad that makes it such a natural match with autism?

Design

The design of the iPad is simple: a 9.7-inch glass screen with one circular button at the bottom. Power and volume controls are on the sides and out of the main view; there are almost no visual distractions on the outside body. The layout of the screen is a natural grid made up of approximately 1-inch icon squares, each activated by a single touch. The number and layout of icons on any screen can be customized by the user so that a screen can contain only one or two choices, or as many as 25. The ability to customize the number of choices and the amount of information on a page can be very helpful. Many people find that iPad screens mimic the “choice boards” that the autism community has been using for years.

Interaction

The beautiful simplicity of the iPad is that it is operated by the touch of a finger; this is also what makes it such an ideal tool for people with autism. One of the skills that is looked for in early childhood development is the ability to point to indicate interest. The iPad requires the user to do exactly that, providing children with autism with many opportunities to develop this skill. On the iPad, the finger can play musical instruments, write words, turn a page, pop balloons, make choices, complete puzzles, and even launch angry birds at towers of blocks. The mere interactive nature of the iPad can create a natural gateway for more gesture-based communication and even joint attention activities.

Portability and Accessibility

Before iPads, the closest thing we had to portable technology was laptop computers. But laptops are heavier and more cumbersome, making them less accessible to young children and people with physical challenges. Laptops also require a touchpad or a mouse, which can be a barrier to use. Laptops typically can run four hours or less before requiring a recharge; iPads have up to 10 hours of battery life on a single charge. Software or “apps” for iPads are also much more readily available than computer software, new content can be purchased from the App Store instantly on the iPad with just a few taps, and there are no disks or system requirements to keep up with. Additionally, more and more programmers are developing apps specifically for the autism community.

What can’t the iPad do?

For all of the terrific things the iPad can do, there are many things it cannot do. It cannot “cure” autism, it is not a “magic bullet,” and simply placing it in the hands of a person with autism isn’t necessarily any more beneficial than putting them in front of a computer or a television. An iPad should never be a substitute for personal interaction, nor should it replace opportunities to practice real world skills. It should never be imposed on a child who is uninterested or unwilling to use it. When iPads are used by caring parents and professionals to help people with autism reach their highest potential, wonderful things can happen.

I teach iPad workshops all over the state, and one of the most common questions I get is, “How do I keep my child from using the iPad as a toy? All he wants to do is play games.” The bottom line is there is no substitute for parental involvement. While there are tools to limit app access, it’s up to the adults, not the child, to decide where, when, and why the iPad is used.

Amy Perry can be reached at 910-864-2769, ext.1206, or aperry@autismsociety-nc.org.

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