i-Pads for Autistic Kids

Lucy Thrupp

May 19, 2012

English 1A

Jeffrey Goldthorpe

Autism, The Internet, and The iPad

There are now twenty times as many people diagnosed as “autistic,” than there were in 1980 (Zarembo, Alan). Scientists and developmental psychologists are bewildered by these statistics. Many theories attempt to explain why autism is more apparent. Scientists are not sure if environmental factors, genes, or both nature and nurture cause autism.

Swiss psychiatrist, Eugene Bleuder, created the word “autism,” in 1911. “Autos” is the Greek word for “self.” The term was used to describe some of Bleuder’s schizophrenic patients with the tendencies to refrain from social interactions. The term was used to portray those who wanted to be alone.

It took a long time for autism to become what it is today. People with autism diagnosis were once regarded as monsters and locked in insane asylums. In the 1970’s, autistic patients were subjected to inhumane treatments as electroshock therapy, LSD, and processes of behavior-changing consisting of physical abuse (“A History of Autsim.” WebMd). Today’s view of autism is quite different.

Modern scientists are aware that there are different types of autism and that each case is unique. The term, “autism,” encompasses a wide variety of people with varying lifestyles and abilities. Autism is, “an umbrella term for a variety of disorders that delay children socially or intellectually” (Shumaker, Laura). Scientists are realizing that most autistic people are more intelligent than they were before considered, but that they are unable to function as so. Many who were considered mentally retarded are being rediscovered as geniuses.

To be considered autistic, one must present symptoms of delayed speech development, ineffective communicative abilities, strong, specific interests, and repeated actions, all before the age of three. However, other individuals are on the spectrum without meeting this criteria. Such individuals might be told they have “Atypical Autism,” “Pervasive Development Disorder,” “Rett Syndrome,” or, “Asperger’s Syndrome.” (“Asperger’s Syndrome,” was discovered when German scientist Hans Asperger recognized that some individuals exhibit autistic tendencies without suffering from cognitive defects [and, in fact, rather tend to show signs of genius].) (“A History of Autsim.” WebMd).

Along with the rising number of individuals diagnosed with autism is the steady progression and increasing abundance of technology. Certain new technologies have greatly influenced the lifestyles of autistic children and their families. Contemporary devices like Apple’s iPad have changed the lives of many families affected by autism. Evidence suggests that the iPad is beneficial to autistic children’s developing communication, social skills, cognitive function, fine-motor skills, and other abilities. Many autism families have already deemed Apple’s iPad a “miracle.” The iPad improves the lives of many individuals affected by autism; however, it is not clear whether what will result from autistic children’s exposure to such technology will be wholly positive.

The iPad was not designed as an aid for autistic children, however, for many, this is what it has become. The iPad’s design can be understood by the autistic for a variety of reasons. Its large screen is preferable to smaller devices designed specifically for the autistic and the touch screen provides instant gratification that is especially appreciated by autistic children who have trouble getting what they want.  Unlike gadgets intended for the disabled, the iPad does not attract attention.

The iPad can be used to relieve the stress autistic children normally feel in social situations. Even if they are able to speak, an autistic child does not know how to interact in a social context. When one tells another that they were in the Amazon last week, a normal response to the statement would be to inquire how their vacation was. An autistic child cannot distinguish between socially-acceptable and “abnormal” responses. Autistic children might repeat the statement just said to them. Or they might announce, “I like donkeys.” People who do not know that they are talking with an autistic individual might accuse them of being rude. Because of such accusations, an autistic child tends not to like being around many other people. Due to their conversational troubles, they have trouble making friends. The ipad provides healthy distractions to alleviate the stress of social situations and big crowds. And if an autistic child does decide to talk, their iPad can help them articulate what they want to say.

Apple has now released many iPad applications for the autistic, which allow autistic children to touch pictures to communicate their wants, needs, and emotions. Applications like “How Are You Feeling?” allow autistic children to touch images of faces with different emotions in order to describe how they are feeling (Ipad Helps the Autistic Speak ). Apple applications allow people to download images from their environment to ask for what they otherwise could not. The iPad lets, “users…import images and audio to make communicating more personal,” (Flores, Taya). Autistic children can request things from their own environment. Applications have become specific to different world regions. Autistic children in India are able to touch images of their favorite dosas to have for lunch.  The iPad is a great communicative tool for the autistic. Half of severely autistic children have no functional speech or language skills, whatsoever (Flores, Taya). That the iPad can help them to speak is hugely important.

Ipads are helping not only autistic individuals but their families as well. Parents and other family members are benefitting as a result of the iPad’s enabling autistic children speak up. Without the iPad, parents of autistic children are constantly frustrated. They never know which part of their child’s body feels pain, if their child is angry, or whether their Little Johnny is in the mood for Chinese or pizza. The iPad is not only helping autistic children to speak, it is allowing their families to hear what their children have to say for the first time. Parents and other family members are benefitting as a result of the iPad’s enabling autistic children speak up.

Autistic people are often naturally drawn to technology and when an autistic child is provided with such a user-friendly device, they are excitable and instantly inspired to learn. The iPad allows autistic children to teach themselves. Many Apple applications are games that help children with math or reading. These applications are designed specifically for autistic children to understand. And because the rest of the world is not, autistic children love these applications. Math, literacy, and games meant to enhance cognitive function have improved the skills of thousands of autistic children. They have proved that many autistic children are capable of more than they were ever expected to be.

While autistic children seem to benefit from the presence of technology in their treatments and education, it is a fact that too much technology and exposure to screens is not good for children: “According to the American Optometric Association, children can be even more susceptible than adult to developing eye discomfort, fatigue, headaches and blurred vision” (Jernigan). Children eyes are more sensitive because their brains are still developing. Also, they do not appropriately adjust the brightness of computer screens as an adult would.

Many early childhood education classrooms have computers. Many preschools and elementary schools have incorporated “computer time,” in their curriculums. However, this is not developmentally appropriate.

A small child does not benefit from learning to type and they do not benefit from using the Internet. A child should not be trying to type. They should be running around. Too much time sitting at a computer inhibits children’s physical development. Children with unlimited access to computers can develop back problems and may become obese (Jernigan). Computers are not developmentally appropriate for small children. One cannot develop their fine-motor skills until they have developed their gross-motor abilities. A child has plenty of chances in life to Google search, but they will not always be able to stimulate their vestibular systems. Children should not be subjected to technology until they have asked years and years of open-ended questions about their natural environments and wondered about the answers before anyone else, or any device thinks for them.

Parents may intend for their children to benefit from using computers. They do not expect any harm to come from their child learning how to surf the web ate age the age of three. But more often than not, young children are exposed to websites with inappropriate topics. Children who use computers are more likely to see images of violence or sex than children without computer access (Jernigan).

Despite what good they seem to be doing for autistic children, screens are addictive and iPads are not good for small children. In non-autistic children, exposure to screens does not encourage good behavior. Once a child has been shown a screen, they want to see it again. One of my three-year-old students, Lucas, used to play with his mother’s iPad. The touch screen was great for him; the device was user-friendly enough for him to use. But when the iPad was taken from the normally happy and well-behaved child, he would scream. Lucas never wanted to stop using the iPad, and so, it had to be taken away forever. The behaviors of non-autistic children are worsened by the iPad.

Autistic children are equally susceptible to the problems healthy children develop from using technology at an early age. Perhaps the iPad is assisting their lives in certain ways, however, it is also harming them. Also, the vast majority of Apple’s iPad applications for the autistic are professionally reviewed (Pradnya, Joshi). Many autistic children use applications that are not effective and may in fact be harmful.

Supposedly Apple’s iPad helps to socialize autistic children. But is this really true? If a child with Asperger’s repeatedly distracts himself from social situations, how will they ever learn to cope without the iPad? Are autistic children socializing even less than they would without their iPads? Autistic people often appreciate technology more than your average citizen. Might the autistic children now using iPads grow up to live in isolation, their only friend the latest Apple gadget? Also, many sources claim that iPads encourage speech development. But is there really proof that the autistic children who use iPads and have learned to converse would have without the iPad?

Technology isolates many non-autistic individuals and has changed the social world in ways, which effect the entire American population, even individuals with autism. As Lee Sigel points out that, “more and more people are able to live in a more comfortable and complete self-enclosure than ever before” (Siegel 21). Technology is detaching people from each other. Blogging and social networking have changed relationships. People are more distant than ever before. Many individuals can no longer have friendships outside of Facebook and Twitter. The social problems created by computers are affecting people with autism as well as everyone else. And because autistic individuals have innate social problems, superfluous exposure to technology cannot help children on the spectrum to become more sociable.

So far the iPad has benefitted the lives of autistic children and their families, but we can’t see the future. We don’t know if there will be side effects of using the iPad as treatment for autism. Maybe, for some, being too reliant on a gadget will be more of a problem than their autism was in the first place.

Perhaps using iPad as a treatment for autism is just a phase. Maybe it is as trendy as bleeding your buboes in the dark ages. Perhaps attaching electronic devices to wheelchairs is as laughable as aromatherapy. Perhaps we are making people into robots. Maybe future technologies will supersede the iPad’s new role in the autistic community.

The iPad has aided those with other typed of disabilities, diseases, etc. Some individuals with Down Syndrome benefit from certain iPad applications. People with A.L.S. have used the iPad to speak once they weren’t able to use their voice and have worked on maintaining fine-motor skills for as long as they can.  Alzheimer’s patients have used the iPad as well. I know a boy who was the victim of sever head trauma and suffers from extreme brain damage. This child is only able to communicate via iPad.

Even with all of its success, the iPad cannot help everyone in the autistic community. Some autistic individuals’ cognitive function does not allow them to use the iPad at all. Even if we accept that, right now, the iPad is an advantageous treatment for many autistic children, their families, and a miraculous gift to the autistic community as a whole, it is a treatment and not a cure. It must be acknowledged that much remains unknown about how to treat autism people, and the iPad alone is not a sufficient medicine. No matter what, this is all progress.

[Works Cited page is on a separate document, sorry.—J.G.]

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