iPad 2 with Dr. Seuss Game

The iPad has been the subject of many recent news stories as an autism intervention tool. But like any other miracle device, there are probably benefits and dangers in relying too heavily on using iPad Games with autistic children. In this post I dig through the hoopla to identify the reported pros and cons of relying on the iPad to help autistic children.

Benefits of iPad Games

Some experts and parents who’ve used the iPad with autistic kids believe it helps these children deal with sensory overload. Autism expert Martha Herbert, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who wrote the book Understanding Autism for Dummies, says that the iPad can give autistic children control over the pace of information that comes at them.  Another expert in assistive technology says that the iPad is great because it provides autistic children a way to directly control the interface instead of having to use a keyboard and mouse.

60 Minutes did a segment on using the iPad for autistic children and reported that the iPad is a way for these children to communicate in a way they couldn’t before using normal speech and gestures. One 20-something autism suffer reports his frustration at trying to communicate during classes and at family events prior to owning an iPad. He currently views the iPad as his voice, and uses it to order food at restaurants as well as its picture, video, and music capabilities to express his feelings.

One parent mentions that the iPad is especially good because it attracts kids through its “cool factor,” is cheaper than other digital devices geared towards special needs children, and doesn’t make the child stick out from other children. For example, the $7,000-$10,000 Dynavox devices is conspicuous and expensive.

A study at the Beverly School in Toronto found that iPad use with students engaged them in a way that wasn’t observed with other toys or puzzles. The study also found that it increased the autistic kids’ willingness to socialize and increased their attention spans. The teachers who participated in the study believe this is because the iPad acts as a teacher that is “constant” to autistic children in that it runs at their own pace, and never gets impatient. It gives kids a sense of order and control over their activities.

Dangers of Relying Too Much on iPad Games

Some articles are suggesting the iPad may be a “miracle device” for autism, but most of us know that any time we hear the word “miracle” our snake oil peddler alarm goes off. Miracles only exist in Field of Dreams and Mighty Ducks movies, right?

So what are the downsides to iPad use, and are these downsides very harmful?

Well, as with all digital games, autistic children can become too obsessed with iPad gaming, which causes them to recede further and further into their own world, neglecting social contact. This is especially harmful for autistic children who are already prone to solitary behavior. The key to preventing this—as I’ve mentioned in a previous post on the dangers of overreliance on video games—is to use iPad games in moderation and view it as a supplement to person-to-person interaction rather than the focal point around which all other activity takes place.

Secondly, the iPad doesn’t work for all autistic kids. For example, teachers from the Beverly School (profiled in 60 Minutes) found that not every autistic child benefits equally from the iPad as some students simply aren’t engaged by it.

All in all, the dangers of iPad use aren’t really that bad at all, and as long as you keep close tabs to ensure your autistic child isn’t neglecting all other activities to play on his iPad you should be fine.

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