I am excited to start a series of blog posts on using the iphone, the ipod touch, and the ipad with young children who have autism. For the past couple of months I have been working with an ipad, and an ipod touch in our clinic and helping families use these tools in their homes. My experience with these tools does not make me an expert but already I am finding so many possibilities that I feel sure some of what I can tell and show you will be useful. Some parents that I work with are out in front of me on this but many more are unfamiliar with all the i-things that are coming onto the market but still interested because of the buzz in the media about using these tools with children who have autism. Let me start with some of the basic concepts based on questions that parents frequently ask me here at the clinic.
Why are so many people talking about using these devices with children who have autism? These devices offer some relatively inexpensive solutions to some nagging problems. For example, a family may be using pictures to support early communication development in children with autism. These pictures are very helpful but hard to organize and find when needed. On any of these i-machines, a parent can store and use all the pictures that the child needs in one place. So, for example, it is much easier for a parent to pull together a group of photos to show a child what they are going to buy at the grocery store or at Target. Sometimes, it is the child who needs the pictures to communicate with parents or others and there are several inexpensive systems available so that the child can do this. Using one of these augmentative communication systems used to be a possibility for only a few children due to the cost and complexity of the systems but new simple systems are available for many more children. There is also software available that helps over-worked parents of young children with autism organize life and specific tools for understanding some of the systems that parents must negotiate--such as Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
What is the iphone and the ipod Touch? These two devices are little tiny computers with touch screens. Ignoring the fact that one is a phone, they are very similar devices. With both the iphone and the ipod touch you can get on a wireless network and use the Internet. With the phone, you need to pay a monthly fee for both voice phone service and for the ability to use the Internet even when you are not within the range of a wireless network. You can buy apps (software) for both machines (see below) and these apps are what make the machines useful for children with autism.
What is the ipad? The ipad is a bigger little computer with a touch screen but it is still quite small. The ipad also uses apps (see below). The ipad comes in two versions. One version connects to the Internet via a wireless connections and there is no monthly fee with this ipad. The other version connects to the Internet anywhere you go and one must pay a monthly service plan. At this time, I don't see much advantage to buying the ipad that requires a monthly fee if one has a wireless computer network at home. The ipad looks and operates like a large ipod touch. The size, it turns out, makes the ipad useful in some situations where the ipod or the iphone would not be. Likewise, in some situations the smaller size is more useful. It is nice, for example, to be able to carry the ipod touch and still hold a child's hand with your other hand.
What is an App? An App is a small software program that you can acquire and install on your iphone, your ipod touch, or your ipad. One absolutely delightful thing about apps is that they are instantly available. YOu don't have to wait for your computer to start up, update several programs automatically, then load the software you are trying to use. Young children with autism just don't give you that much time to get your stuff together. I find it much easier to use these little computers with a young child who has autism because I can touch a button and start playing with the child on the machine.
How do you get Apps?
You acquire all Apps from the iTunes Store. Some Apps intended for children are free, many cost a few dollars and a few cost a much as a couple hundred dollars. Other phones also have apps but so far, the itunes store has by far the largest selection of apps. You open an account with the itunes store on your computer, making very sure you can remember your account name and your password. From then on, you acquire new apps on your iphone, your ipod touch, or your ipad by going online and selecting what you want directly on the machines. However, many apps need to be backed up on the computer. This is accomplished through connecting the i-machine to your regular computer and then syncing to the itunes store online. I won't explain this process here but you should know about it.
You frequently need to know your itunes account number and your credit card number as you acquire new apps. Write down these numbers somewhere safe but somewhere accessible. I mention this because I am constantly forgetting my own personal account number and now my clinic has a second account number that I need to remember! Yikes!
Is one device better than the others as a tool to help a child with autism? Even though the ipad and the ipod touch are very similar, except for size, there seems to be some distinct advantages to each so this is not an easy question to answer. I think the ipod touch (preferably with a camera built in) or an iphone would be really useful for nearly any family to own. Why? Because this portable little device makes it possible to take visual supports (pictures) with you every where you go. Showing the child visuals can become a way of life--and that is extremely helpful for a child who has autism. I will be blogging on some of the wonderful ways that having photos with you everywhere can help a child learn language, stay focused and stay emotionally regulated (calm and happy).
Should the machine be given over to the child to use at will? With young children, not usually. Yes, eventually, if the machine is being used as a communication device but then it would not be wise to put competing games on the device. Even then, one would have to teach the child how to use the device. It is very easy to delete many programs off these machines. If the ipod touch is being used as a learning tool, not a communication device, then the adult should manage the machine very actively with young children. This is going to mean some arguments at the beginning. Parents should not cave on this argument, simply make a rule that grown-ups hold the machine and stick to it. I am not advocating buying an ipod touch for a young child to play with independently. Quite the contrary. I think this would be unwise and cause the child to become more self-isolated since it is easy to become addicted to the games available on these devices. I don't think small hand held gaming machines are healthy for any young child and the research seems to support my view on this.
The ipad is the better tool for teaching new concepts to children, in my short experience. It is bigger and the graphics just pop out making it very easy to get and keep a child's attention. It is a great at home learning tool for everything from music concepts, to drawing, to writing, to geography and of course, from my perspective, it is perfect for teaching language concepts and that is what I will be blogging about. I think that all language concepts that are taught on a screen need to be taught in the real world too or else they will not be useful to a child. Keep in mind that the ipad is fragile and easily broken. It is also addictive so parents will need to limit screen time. I recommend only letting a young child use it when an adult is playing with the child.
Are these machines good augmentative communication devices? Yes, these devices appear to be an entire game changer in the world of augmentative communication, but there are some drawbacks and as a Speech Language Pathologist, I am still working hard to figure out how best to use them. I will do some blog posts soon on using these devices to help children who are nonverbal start to communicate. These machines allow us to augment communication for many more children and, we hope, help children learn to communicate more quickly.
i-Supports for Children with Autism Blog Series
1 Basic Concepts...a post that describes the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad and how apps are used on these devices.
2 Grocery Shopping...a video clip demonstrating how the iPhone or iPod Touch to support social engagement and language learning while grocery shopping.
3. Rules for the Computer...a post on setting limits on computer time.