Monday, September 20, 2010

The iPhone & iPad - Great tools for autism spectrum disorders but I want even more

My boys love technology.  Come to think of it, don't all kids?  If it isn't XBox and Playstation, it's Wii and Nintendo.  Around here it seems as if getting a Nintendo DS is a right of passage for each youngster. I hear parents talk about their child getting their Nintendo DS like a first tooth, a bar mitzvah, or a driver's license.  "We had to really hold Jimmy off on getting his DS".  Keep in mind that I'm living in a glass house here.  I've got three boys and just succumbed to buying one for my 6 year old on his birthday.  That child will be a lobbyist some day.  Me buying one is no surprise though given that we tend to buy toys in triplicate for crying out loud.  I've found it leads to less arguing.  That being said, we do "manage screen time" pretty agressively.  You have to or they become monsters.  Maybe that's why I'm grumpy at work all the time...  Too much screen time.

I'm trying to find ways for my son to utilize technology in a positive manner.  I am confident we have a great solution available to us in the iPhone and iPad.

The local autism community here in Madison, WI and the Internet at large (i.e., Twitter, etc.) are buzzing with information about how tools like the iTouch, iPhone and iPad can make a real difference for our kids.  As an information technology professional and an iPhone user, I've been thinking a lot about it as well. I've done a ton of reading up on what others are doing and saying (kudos to those of you who've taken time to post content on the topic such as Shannon Des Roches Rosas blog entry The iPad: a Near Miracle for my Son With Autism and Ashley Harrel's article in the San Francisco Weekly titled iHelp for Autism.  I've also been asking around my contacts here in town, watching Twitter for weeks now to get a sense of personal and professional perspectives, and planning an approah that will work for my son. 

Several aspects of this technology are getting the lion's share of the focus in the autism community; namely augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) apps like Proloquo2Go (a $189.99 AAC app by AssistiveWare), scheduling apps such as First Then Visual Schedule ($9.99 schedule maker by Good Karma Applications), and social story making apps like Stories2Learn (a $13.99 app by MDR).  These are all good applications that I think belong in the standard bag of tricks for anyone utilizing this technology.  However, in my humble opinion they fall short for my son and I suspect for many of your kids.  There are a couple of key tenants that I believe are needed in the marketplace.  If you're a developer, please take heed.

Each of our children on the autism spectrum is so different.  Autism manifests itself in so many ways.  That's why they call it a spectrum right?  We need applications that can be personalized to fit our kids.  We need to make them our own.  To really help, apps must allow us to tweak the setup, include photos of our kids and address the particular nuance of their issues.  For example, social stories and video modelling tools need to be about our kid with photos/videos of them. 

My son is captured and stays engaged with creativity.  During our 3 years of intensive therapy thanks to the autism waiver funds, our therapists worked hard to engage him in creative, surprising ways.  I learned a lot from participating in that process.  It has made me a better dad.  You can argue that technology doesn't get any more creative than the iPad.  In many cases you're right.  What I'd like to see is more applications that leverage the platform of the iPad but target common struggles that people on the autism spectrum deal with.  My boys love CrazyFace.  They get to manipulate the monster's faces with their own voice.  Take a look at my son Mitchell and his 2 brothers as they play with it.  It's on YouTube. There is some good stuff happening here.

Probably the most important for my family and my son is the ability for more than one person to play at the same time.  In the iPad world, that's called multiplayer.  We spent a ton of $ on therapy to promote turn taking, initiating and continuing contact with peers, and sustaining quality interactions with peers.  This is getting harder as my son gets older and kid's play gets more sophisticated.  We need to give him apps that use the great abilities of the iPad to facilitate interactions with peers.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the multi-player apps that are available are either shoot-em-up games or sports.  And you know how much our kids love sports...  Also, they way I look at it, they get bombarded with enough imagery of weapons and "bad guys" in cartoons and TV.  We need something more.

So what should we do?

I do understand that this form factor, tool set and capabilities are still very young.  I guess that's what is so exciting.  The next generation is due out in the spring of 2011 and it will probably offer things like picture in picture (front facing and user-facing cameras like what you see on the new iPhone)  Competitors will be releasing slates (HP, Toshiba, etc.) in the next 6-12 months to rival what Apple has with the iPad.  I suspect this will be much like phone makers are doing now to compete against the iPhone.  My mindset at the moment is to just jump in.  Let's keep asking for what we need, and when it isn't available, build it ourselves.   That's where we're headed.  I'm off to purchase an iPad.


  1. Wonderful, insightful and personal take on how tech helps you. These social benefit apps take people's free time since commercial interests dont always apply. Luckily there is a growing group of open source developers looking for good causes to contribute to. Perhaps you could tap into that resource. Good luck with the challenge.

  2. I came across 3 iPad apps ($2 - $4 each) that focus on expressive language such as sentence construction, posing full questions and building paragraphs for storytelling. These are key things for social skills! Check 'em out!

  3. Hi Paul,

    Nice post. Thank you. You are right, Autism manifests itself so differently in all our children and as developers we must respect that. I myself have a non-verbal little boy who as been severely impacted by his Autism. We always knew he was more intelligent than the standardized tests told us. However, it wasn't until the iTouch that people around us began to see what we already knew. Before the iTouch, we were told he didn't understand the concept of simple words like "yes" and "no". It took one day of using the "itouch" requesting some of his favorite things, to dispell this.
    I am also the developer of "First then Visual Schedule" and "My choice Board". Both of which I began developing with my son in mind, then added features (different screen views, checklist...) to help other families who maybe in need those features. We are constantly working to improve and develop our products to serve this community better. Thanks for all your suggestions. It is appreciated! Best to you and your boys.

    In Kindness