Technology Benefits Patients with Autism

Ec Tech 315

Eating out had become a thing of the past for Jennifer and Mack Miller – until they got their 3-year-old daughter, who has autism, a Leap Pad.

While electronic games and applications fascinate all types of children, parents of children with autism are discovering that technology can engage their children and even help them integrate better into the world.

"For some reason, electronics draw kids with autism," says Jennifer Miller, of Charlotte. "When you find a toy that will occupy them for more than a few minutes, that's a blessing that's huge in itself. Waiting can be hard for a child with autism, so when you have something a child can immerse themselves in, it makes for a much nicer setting at a dinner table."

Parents of children with autism are finding a host of uses for smart phones, iPads and Leap Pads. Hundreds of applications have been written for special needs children, and experts say tablet computers and games can improve everything from fine motor skills to socialization with peers.

In response to parents' many questions about technology and autism, the Autism Society of North Carolina is holding workshops on the topic.

"I think this technology is going to benefit a lot of people," says Amy Perry, a parent advocate/trainer with the Autism Society of North Carolina who leads the workshops. "More and more parents of children with autism are getting iPads and they want to know what to do."

iPads and Apps

The sounds and colors of an iPad application and touching the screen can keep children with autism interested in ways that traditional learning settings may not.

"When you have a child with autism, the best way to allow that child to learn is to find as many ways to pull in their senses at one time," says Myra Preston, a neurophysiologist at Siber Imaging in Charlotte.

Some iPad applications help children with academic skills such as math and reading. Other apps are focused on specific problems that people with autism face.

One application, called "Social Express," presents a simulated social situation such as a girl whose ice cream falls off the cone when she licks it. The app asks how the girl is feeling.

Children with autism often struggle to understand social cues and facial expressions. Social Express prompts users to look at characters' faces and body language – in the ice cream situation it's a frown and slumped shoulders – to figure out their emotions.

Other apps work specifically on fine motor skills, such as asking the user to touch a box on the screen.

Amy Soderstrom, a regional support person for the Autism Society of North Carolina, said the iPad has replaced the expensive DynaVox device her non-verbal autistic son previously used to communicate.

"We could get apps for the iPad that were very similar to his communication device," Soderstrom says. "And the iPad is smaller, lighter and more normal looking to other kids."

Neurofeedback Therapy

Preston has used video-game like technology to help people with autism for decades.

She says that many parents are wary of medicating their children, and neurofeedback therapy offers an alternative. The therapy corrects brainwave patterns and lowers activity that can cause symptoms of autism and Asperger's Syndrome.

Treatment usually takes about six months of twice-weekly sessions, and Preston says she has seen people with autism increase their IQs, become verbal and even test off the autism spectrum.

Recently, more and more parents have asked Preston whether other technologies, such as iPads, are good for their children. Her answer? Yes.

IPads can help children learn and catch up in school, which makes children with autism more like their typically developing peers. With increased common ground, they are more likely to talk to other children.

"I've had parents tell me it's opened up a whole new world of communication for their children," Preston says. "It's giving them another tool that may allow them to more easily express themselves and be part of the world around them."

Parents and therapists caution that technology use needs to be limited.

"We talk about how the iPad is not the only way to teach your child something," Perry said. "There's nothing magical about it, but it is a really neat useful tool and there has been some great software developed for it."

Parents also need to make sure that children with autism, who can become hyper-focused on an activity, don't become obsessed with an iPad.

"They'll get completely over focused on it then they become upset when they take it away," Preston said. "It doesn't really take the place of therapies that truly correct the way that child's brain is functioning."

Marty Minchin is the mother of two children and a freelance writer in Charlotte.

Apps for Children with Autism

Preschool Monkey Lunch
Six educational games for ages 2-5 teach children about counting, matching, letters, shapes and colors as preschoolers help monkeys pack their lunch. The game has no confusing menus or navigation bars, and parents say kids especially like the animal sticker rewards for winning a game.

Users can create talking photo albums and books, allowing them to communicate and share experiences. Each page can contain a picture, text and a recorded sound or text-to-speech. Great for creating social stories and picture schedules.

Uses a visual format to help children learn how to have multiple-exchange conversations with their peers. Parents say children love how they can record and play back their side of the conversations.

First Then Visual Schedule
Completely customizable app allows users to create schedules with pictures, graphics and recordings. Children can see what's coming up next on their schedule and check off things they have done.

TapSpeak Button Plus for iPad
Customizable image buttons play recorded words and messages, giving a voice to children with limited communication skills. Effective for all ages, including infants and toddlers.