Not too long ago, an autism diagnosis was seen as a door tightly shut on a world that communicated differently. Today, people with autism have a powerful key to unlock that door — thousands of apps to help them communicate.
More than a trend in the billion-dollar app industry, the increase signals a significant step toward integrating more people with autism into the mainstream, experts say.
“It’s really been a game changer,” said Robin Parker, Ph.D., a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Abraham Fischler School of Education in Fort Lauderdale. Parker, who specializes in speech, language and communication, uses the apps to facilitate her work with children. She has seen tremendous improvement in children’s communications and behavioral skills, including having children learn to speak.
“These apps are clearly helping our kids and adults do what everyone else is doing,” said Parker, who is also consulting director at the University of Miami-NSU Center for Autism Related Disabilities (CARD).
Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by difficulty communicating and socializing as well as repetitive behaviors. It encompasses a broad spectrum, from severe to milder forms like Asperger’s syndrome.
Why do apps work?
Parker said touch technology is geared more toward how people with autism process information.
“It’s good universal design that helps people with or without disabilities,” she said.
In February, Temple Grandin, the iconic autism advocate and doctor of animal science who is autistic herself, delivered a lecture, “Different Kinds of Minds” at the University of Miami. She mentioned not only the benefits of IPad technology for people with autism, but with characteristic candor, added some irony and insight about its creator.
“What is autism?” she said. “It’s a developmental disorder, and on one end of the spectrum you’ve got Steve Jobs and Einstein. Einstein had no language until age 3. Steve Jobs was a weird loner who brought snakes to his elementary school and was bullied and teased and had all kinds of problems”
Parker said the development of autism apps is revolutionary in teaching people who process information differently.
“Before we taught only one way. We were effectively excluding and segregating people. With these technologies we are truly making our society more inclusive,” said Parker.
For those who could not speak, big bulky devices designed to help people communicate cost thousands of dollars. The cost of apps ranges from free to about $300. While some people may still need the large devices, most can benefit from the apps, Parker said. She suggests going to the Appy Mall (www.appymall.com), an online resource for finding free and discounted apps and which has a section devoted to autism.
The proliferation of autism apps is a response to the growing number of children and adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Last month, a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in 50 children is affected by autism. The numbers represent a 72 percent increase from a 2007 CDC report. In the new study, the CDC said the increase was based on parents’ reports of increased diagnoses of milder forms of autism, including Asperger syndrome.
Popular communications apps include Proloquo2go, one of the first apps to facilitate language, Touch Chat and Scene & Heard. Social skills apps include Hidden Curriculum, which helps kids and adults learn unstated daily rules through real-life examples and Sosh, which teaches social skills while helping kids relax.
The I See-quence series of apps by I Get It was developed for I Touch and I Phone to use photo stories to teach children about specific social situations they may have difficulty understanding. Going to a Birthday Party, Going to Fireworks and Easter Social Skills are just a few.
In January, Jonathan Izak, a 25-year-old inventor with roots in Bal Harbour, developed Autismate, an IPad app to help children with language challenges. When Izak was 16, his brother Oriel, 3, was diagnosed with a severe form of autism that affected his ability to speak, make eye contact and swallow solid foods. “I grew up seeing him face a lot of struggles,” Izak says.
As a kid obsessed with playing and making his own video games, Izak majored in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Oriel had extensive speech and behavioral therapy that improved his ability to communicate and navigate the world on his own. Several years ago, he began using a device to facilitate communication.
“That device was very large and very heavy, and he had to carry it around his neck,” Izak said. “It was heart-wrenching to watch him need to wear this equipment around his neck to be able to communicate.’’
With input from educators and therapists including some of Oriel’s clinicians, Izak developed a prototype for Autismate over two years.
The app uses photos of the child’s own environment. On Izak’s IPad is a view of his family’s kitchen. As he tapped on the image of the refrigerator, the app zoomed in. With another tap, the door opened to display a variety of food choices.
“May I have a banana ?” a voice asked.
“It starts off with very simple communication like tapping on your fridge to communicate, but helps you build up to understanding language concepts and categories and then all the way up to the more traditional system to build sentences and spontaneous speech,” Izak said.
Autismate, which has received good reviews on various industry websites, also combines communication and behavior learning, he said. “In the kitchen I can be both requesting an item to eat while learning proper table manners or how to wash your hands or do the dishes.”
Oriel uses Autismate at home and at the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School, near Aventura, where he is enrolled in the Kesher program for children with special needs.
Parker said the apps can be broken down into several categories: social skills, regular learning for academic or other skills and occupational therapy like handwriting, cutting with scissors, even discomfort with textures. Children with autism generally have trouble with fine motor skills and sensitivity to textures.
Parker cautions that apps are no substitute for therapy. In fact, she said, a therapist should help determine which of the thousands of apps on the market is best for the child based on an evaluation and the goals set for the child.
“There’s more and more research showing that even kids with significant intellectual disabilities can learn to read and write,” Parker said.
And then there is the “cool factor” for kids with special needs.
Parents, she said, “are much more willing to accept this technology. It’s a lot cooler to have an Ipad.”