The advent of the iPad and iPod with the proliferation of their accompanying applications offers extraordinary opportunities for students with special needs, including those with autism. In an Education Week article, Matthew S. Goodwin, the director of clinical research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, states, “A lot of this [new technology] is preliminary and promising, but it’s not a silver bullet.” Mr. Goodwin continues to say, “It’s not going to cure autism, but we’re at the precipice of a revolution.”
Others, however, are more effusive in their excitement regarding the new technology. Dr. Stephen Shore, the author of Autism for Dummies, who was himself diagnosed with autism as a child, said that the “iPad might be the difference between communicating with the outside world and being locked into a closed state.” And many, many parents are anecdotally sharing how their children are beginning to communicate with them for the first time and acquiring more and more skills. Shannon Des Roches Rosa, in an article for BlogHer, declares that she doesn’t “usually dabble in miracle-speak, but I may erect a tiny altar to Steve Jobs in the corner of our living room.” According to the blog, her son “electrifies the air around him with independence and daily new skills.” Furthermore, professionals are also embracing the use of iPads for students with autism. One speech pathologist stated, “I just couldn’t imagine not introducing this to a parent of a child who has autism.
So, why is the iPad working so well so for kids with autism? Unlike other augmented communication devices, such as the Dynavox, experts say that the iPad is more intuitive for children to use and gives them control over the interface. Its touch screen is good for children with fine motor issues. And children seem to know instinctively how to use the iPad, which is described as being “cheaper, faster, more versatile, more user-friendly, more portable, more engaging, and infinitely cooler for young people.”
Andrea Leonardi, the special education director of Fairfield, CT, which is incorporating iPads into their special education programs, believes it is the applications that allow the iPad to be individualized to a student’s needs. And Apple, which has 60,000 apps and a “special education” section on its web site, continues to pump out apps for students with special needs. Des Roches Rosa, in her previously discussed blog, discusses many of the apps that she believes are opening the world up to her son, including DrawFree, IWriteWords, and First Then Visual Schedule. Rosa also praises Stories2Learn, which is used for creating social stories.
Actual data on the effectiveness of these new technologies are limited. A 2008 study from Australia reported behavioral improvements in ten students who were using the iPod. According to this study, about 60% of the educational goals set for the study were achieved. The researchers concluded that the technology afforded students the “potential to live healthy, fulfilling, and productive lives.” Another 2009 study from the United States, whose results were published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, reported that providing instructional demonstrations on an iPod, a technique known as video modeling, was an effective means to helping students achieve a desired behavior. Finally, only one study, “Touch Technologies in the Classroom,” is reviewing the effectiveness of iPads in six classrooms for autistic students. Although data are still being gathered for this study, preliminary reports are favorable.
Many parents are beginning to request that iPads be made available to their children through their IEPs. To find out if an iPad is appropriate for your child, request an assistive technology evaluation. The results of that evaluation are what should drive the IEP decision on whether or not your child should have the iPad, not the cost or availability of the technology to your school district.