The iPad and Autism: Strange Bedfellows?

My grandson has autism.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) occur in one in every 88 children in the U.S. and are five times more prevalent in boys. The diagnosis is also on the rise, and no one’s quite sure where it comes from.

Children with ASDs are a lovable handful. But with early diagnosis and special care, these kids mostly do fine, especially with some of the new tools around. Some of them unexpected.

Some months ago, with his parents’ permission, we gave our grandson an iPad. Grandma had graduated to a new iPad Mini and so we thought, what the heck. But we handed it over with some trepidation nonetheless.

On a recent family vacation, we discovered that the iPad had, in fact, become an unexpected and now powerful teaching tool.

So, what makes the iPad such a good tool for ASD kids? A recent article in “The Spectrum,” published by the Autism Society of North Carolina by Amy Perry, parent advocate and trainer, gives us the answer. Perry writes: “The iPad literally puts the world at our fingertips, requiring only the operator’s fingers and imagination.”

She goes on to tell us that the iPad can be a natural match for people with autism. That’s because many with ASD are, as Perry puts it, “locked in their own worlds, unable to communicate.” They find portals in their iPads that let them connect with the world around them and with others.

What’s more, the iPad enables kids thought to have profound intellectual disabilities to “show intelligence and awareness no one thought possible.” Kids who could never even hold a crayon can now draw and write and express themselves using just a fingertip.

So, Perry asks, what makes the iPad such a phenomenal tool for those with autism?

Its simple design, for one thing. Its 9.7 inch glass screen and movable icons mimic the “choice boards” used by the autistic community for years.

The iPad is infinitely interactive. A touch of a finger does it all. Pointing, as Perry notes, is a skill we look for in early childhood to suggest interest. IPad users do just that, and so they learn and perfect this basic human function.

What’s really cool,pointing and touching the iPad screen allows the child to perform myriad tasks, from writing words, turning a page, playing a musical instrument, or working a puzzle. These basics have long been huge challenges for ASD children.

Wrapped in its tough Carolina-blue rubbery skin, our grandson’s iPad is easily carted from place to place and impervious to screen-shattering drops on tile floors. And it only weighs in at a pound-and-a-half, so it’s carried about with ease by 6-year-old hands. Its long-term battery charge (up to 10 hours at a pop) keeps the iPad ready to pick and use for hours on end.

And the really good news is that there are thousands of apps that can be quickly downloaded and put almost instantly to use by anyone with the attention span of a gnat. That would be me. More really good news is, there’s a smorgasbord of marvelous apps available for ASD kids, and there are more coming online every day.

Are there downsides? Sure. A huge dose of parental, or grandparental and sometimes professional, supervision is called for when the iPad’s in use. As Perry notes, “An iPad should never be a substitute for personal interaction … or replace opportunities for real-world skills….”

The iPad, she cautions, cannot cure autism nor is it a “magic bullet” for this mysterious syndrome. Also, parents and caregivers should never impose iPad use on a child who’s not interested in or resistant to using it.

But, when all’s said and done, this “magical device,” as Apple founder Steve Jobs called it, can work wonders in the world of autism. Goodness knows, these kids deserve it.

Oh, and while I have your attention, be sure to “turn it blue” on World Autism Awareness Day April 2, 2014. Stick a blue light bulb (available at most home centers) in your porch light that evening.

Or better still, throw a blue screen up on your iPad.