Steve Jobs called it a magical device. For the parents of autistic children, it actually might be.
Experts say the Apple iPad lessens the symptoms of the disorder, helping kids deal with life's sensory overload -- in a sense "curing" the disorder, one parent says.
That's what Laura Holmquist believes, at least. Her son Hudson was having 8 or 9 violent meltdowns per day. One morning he started screaming in his bedroom -- and didn't stop until late that evening. The family of eight could not go to public events or out to dinner and had a hard time communicating with him.
"The iPad has given us our family back," Laura told FoxNews.com. "It's unlocked a new part of our son that we hadn't seen before, and given us insight into the way he connects with his world."
Diagnosed with autism about ten months ago, 3-year-old Hudson is built like a Mack truck and has a disarming smile. His brother Zane is about the same age (both are adopted) and can ask for toys and say complete sentences, but Hudson has trouble communicating about basic needs.
“Originally, we thought he wasn't talking to us because he has four big sisters and they would help him out,” Laura said. “He would point to things without asking for them.”
A school therapist suggested using the Apple iPad; amazingly, the Holmquists say Hudson took to the device immediately. A family friend used the site Chipin.com to raise funds for a new iPad for him, and Hudson now uses the iPad daily as a way to play games, communicate about ideas and even make puzzles.
Laura says the touchscreen tablet is a miracle device.
The experts weigh in
Autism experts like Dr. Martha Herbert, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical, and Stephen Shore, who wrote the book "Understanding Autism for Dummies," agree about the iPad’s usefulness.
The disorder, which affects as many as one out of 110 children in the U.S. according to a CDC study, means kids have “no control over the pace of information coming at them,” Herbert told FoxNews.com. “They are not distracted by context.” With the iPad, she said, the child has more control.
Shore, who struggled with autism as a child himself, said the iPad might be the difference between communicating with the outside world and being locked into a closed state. Interestingly, he says it might be the first of several gadgets that actually free a child from some effects of autism -- and that additional devices, including those that augment speech, will also help.
Mark Coppin, the Assistive Technology Director at the Anne Carlsen Center in Jamestown, North Dakota -- which uses the iPad as part of their special education programs -- said the iPad lets autistic kids have direct control over the interface, unlike a laptop that uses a keyboard and mouse.
Apps like Proloquo2go by AssistiveWare provide a way for kids with autism to communicate desires and feelings in a way that would not be possible otherwise, Coppin said.
There are at least three dozen apps designed for autistic kids including ones for music and reading. And the device itself supports spoken text and other aids for those with special needs.
Areva Martin, an attorney turned autism advocate who has a 13-year-old son with autism, said one of the most important reasons the iPad works so well as a communication device is that it has a high “cool factor” and doesn’t make the child stick out. Other communication devices, such as the $7,000-$10,000 Dynavox, call attention to the child, she said.
Dangers of using the iPad?
As with any gadget, over-exposure is not a good thing. As Martin points out, any child will retreat into another world using a Nintendo DS or an Xbox 360. She said parents of any child, autistic or not, need to monitor how much a gadget is being used, similar to how they use candy as an occasional reward.
Shore explained that there is an opportunity for parents and teachers to get more involved with how the autistic child uses the iPad. Currently, there are no apps that let a parent or teacher connect over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to the child’s iPad and participate in the same app. He says that participation is still critical, though, to help prevent the iPad from being just a distraction from normal life.
“Still, it’s okay to use the iPad as a distraction,” Shore said. “People use BlackBerrys on planes that way all of the time. Of course, they don't have meltdowns when the battery dies! But with the autistic child, it could be their only way to communicate and understand the outside world.”