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Autism and iPads: How Tablets Simplify Communication

It began just after the first generation iPad hit the market. People started to notice its effectiveness on a scale not seen before. As people with autism got their hands on iPads and tablets they opened up, able to communicate on a whole new level.

Experts believe one reason tablets help those with autism so much is because of the way the autistic process data. People with autism often have a sort of apraxia, which is when a person has the intention to do an activity, like speaking, but cannot formulate the movement.

“Talking is inherently complicated. There are several steps involved,” said Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist and neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

She worked with a 16-year-old autistic boy who was able to write poetry, but could not read his own poetry aloud.

“He had a very hard time coordinating the appropriate inhalation and exhalation. The quality of the words that came out was difficult because the air wasn’t cooperating with the vocal cords in terms of timing,” Herbert said.

Experts believe timing is a general problem for those with autism. When people without autism see something, like the words on a screen, the light comes into the eye and the brain processes the data and transduces it into visual perception. If the timing of and coordination of that process is not done in a very specific way, it becomes harder to receive input and express output.

When any person has more time to process things, or when there are fewer pieces of data to process at one time and fewer sensory channels they have to use, it is easier to handle. This is more acute for people with autism and a computer or a tablet is very good at limiting the amount of information presented.

During a conversation, a person does not just listen to words; they interpret facial expressions and body language as well. The autistic often have difficulties with facial expressions and tablets remove that challenge by cutting down on the amount of data waiting to be processed.

In essence, a tablet allows the person with autism, or a caregiver providing home help services to a person with autism, to have more control. A tablet is often more predictable than a person, since it’s a planned out computer program, and it also slows down the data collection process.

“Years ago, I decided I was going to learn to surf. I took an intro to surfing class and it was very hard. The 5-foot waves were just too much too fast. I had to go up the beach to the area with slower and smaller waves. By learning on the smaller waves, I began to see how waves worked without being panicked and worrying about my survival. Then I could try the bigger waves,” Herbert said.

This is how tablets and computers help the autistic. One type of software, called Fast ForWord, takes sounds and slows them down to help people with learning disabilities.

“If you try and feed the information too fast, they can’t hear the difference,” Herbert said. “A tablet gives the autistic more freedom of expression and happiness, and the ability to express needs and thoughts and observation. It’s a freer learning process.”

This can be true for those who need care at any age. Herbert recently worked with a 30-month-old as they tried to take a picture of his head.

“He was hysterical and wouldn’t cooperate. Then his mother handed him her cellphone and even while he was sobbing, he was able to get into the music section and play the music that would calm him down. That was amazing,” she said.

There are high hopes that in the future another new piece of technology will create new tools to help those who need autism care.

“Anybody who says technology like this has reached its peak is being really presumptuous,” Herbert said. “I think people with autism, for the most part – they may test poorly and they may be classified as cognitively impaired, or with what used to be called mental retardation, but I don’t think they’re cognitively impaired. I think what’s so amazing is how liberated they are by computer and technology.”

For a list of tablet apps that can help people with autism, visit http://www.autismspeaks.org/autism-apps. To learn more about Dr. Herbert, visit http://www.marthaherbert.org/.

12 Responses to Autism and iPads: How Tablets Simplify Communication
  1. Cleverlearn Caregiver
    April 1, 2013 | 8:08 am

    I have few friends who have siblings or children who are autistic and I find it very challenging for every family to communicate with these type of people. I consider them special children that they need constant communication and care. The development of technology such as iPad is really a great help that makes communication much easier.

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    April 22, 2013 | 1:36 pm

    I have used the IPad very successfully to communicate with my mom, who has Alzheimer’s. I downloaded hundreds of photos starting when she was a small girl and share them with her when we get together. It triggers all kinds of wonderful memories for both of us.

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