Apple takes a bite

iPad image courtesy of Apple, Inc.There’s been a lot of buzz going around lately about the wonderful apps on the iPad and iPod Touch for people with autism. The people who create these new technology tools promise increased communication, academic growth and creativity. In one of my past lives, I worked for an assistive technology company called AbleNet. I’ve always had a fondness for technology, and I think what I am most excited about with these new tools is the concept of Universal Design.

Universal Design implies that tools like the iPad and iPod Touch are accessible to everyone — including those with disabilities. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Jobs commented on the easy-to-use design of the iPad for people with disabilities.

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said in an interview that he hopes the easy-to-use design of the iPad has helped children with special needs take to the device more quickly, but that its use in therapy wasn’t something Apple engineers could have foreseen.

“We take no credit for this, and that’s not our intention,” Mr. Jobs said, adding that the emails he gets from parents resonate with him. “Our intention is to say something is going on here,” and researchers should “take a look at this.”

True Universal Design benefits everybody — and we may be getting a glimmer of what Universal Design looks like with the iPad. But all is not rosy with the technology. The iPad may be close, but it really is not accessible for all learners. Example: Individuals with physical disabilities can not use switches to access all features on the iPad.

When it comes to individuals with autism, I am curious about the support that is provided for these applications. Communication companies such as Dynavox and Prentke Romich (two of the largest augmentative and alternative device companies) have trained speech and language pathologists on staff and dedicate thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars toward developing their communication devices and the software that supports communication. I am not sure if apps developed as an afterthought by individuals with no professional training have gone through such a rigorous design process. Can I be sure someone will be available to me for technical support if I experienced barriers while attempting to put the apps into practice? I don’t think so.

I love technology. I think the iPad and iPod Touch are great tools for people with autism. Most of us have not replaced our computer with these additional tools. We have simply added another piece of technology. Individuals with autism can truly benefit from the iTechnology, but for now, it should be in addition to their dedicated communication devices.


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