iLearn, iPads, Autism and 60 Minutes

Although the question of whether iPads are a "miracle" for kids with autism existed and has been debated in the blogosphere long before last Sunday's episode of 60 Minutes, the national attention given to the question after last weekend can't be ignored.  Blog opinions range from "the iPad is life-changing!" with heartwarming stories to back it up, to "more screen time is bad for kids," and although there is a nuanced middle ground, it's often not heard (or maybe it just doesn't have enough media pizazz).

As the facilitator of an assistive technology program focused on using the Apple iPad, what do I think?  I think the iPad is amazing.  Sure, as many have pointed out, it's just a tool.  When handed to a child with autism, it doesn't magically make difficulties with communication, engagement, and learning go away.  An iPad doesn't guarantee perfect behavior or instant functional communication.  Although the iPad itself can't do these things, it is a tool that, when used effectively, can help children with autism work on all of these things.  And I believe that it's a pretty cool tool, and it surpasses many other currently available technologies.

We all know that the iPad is portable, accessible and multifunctional. The responsive touch screen on the iPad eliminates the "analogy" inherent in using a mouse to work a computer.   Parents of children with autism know all about the importance of visual aids for their children, but having the right picture in the right moment is challenging!  With a few apps, you can have visual schedules, communication aids, and social stories in one place (in addition to apps that focus on learning, engaging, and just having fun).

iPads enhance engagement and help build relationships. I realize that is a controversial statement…technology can BUILD relationships?!?  Consider the foundation of most friendships: a common interest.  I work at LCA and, therefore, one circle of my friends is full of therapists and teachers.  I play rugby, and therefore another circle of friends also plays rugby or are fans of the game.  I enjoy playing on the iPad and therefore, another circle of friends is 4-10 year old children with autism (among others).

Could a child sit in a room with an iPad and tune out the rest of the world? OF COURSE they could…  couldn't you?

I hope it goes without saying that this isn't how we use the iPad in therapy.  In therapy, the iPad can be a starting point for pretend play.  We play Angry Birds and then go to the motor room and build a structure for the pigs out of blocks.  Using weighted balls to simulate birds, we bombard the pigs to save our eggs!  After playing Toca Boca Tea Party, we set up a tablecloth with dolls, tea cups and treats and have a live tea party at ICAN!   Children who have trouble playing with peers work on taking turns just to get a chance to complete a puzzle on the iPad.  We work on pronouns, teaching "my turn" and "your turn" while we play. These kinds of experiences are some of many, and still only consider applications that are "just for fun."  I haven't even discussed the apps that are designed to be therapeutic.

The iPad as AAC is a truly a topic for its own full blog post. Although the iPad may not be a good AAC option for those with severe physical disabilities, I believe it is the future of AAC for many. I agree with Rob Rummel-Hudson, parent, activist and author, who wrote, "one of the most promising developments in AAC right now is the emergence of Apple's iPad on the market, as well as whatever competing products inevitably appear."  You can read Rummel-Hudson's blog here.

The iPad is amazing.  The possibilities for its use as a therapeutic tool are unlimited. At LCA we discover new ones every day… maybe even every hour.