For AOL News
When people watch Leo Rosa’s fingers tap-slide-tap their way in and out of the mini-worlds contained on his iPad, they notice one thing: This kid knows what he’s doing.
“People say, ‘Whoa dude!’” Leo’s mom Shannon Des Roches Rosa told AOL News. “He’s just sitting there using it like a pro, with obvious mastery. He’s just a regular 10-year-old kid.”
Leo’s not “just a regular 10-year-old kid.”
“His autism is pretty obvious,” Rosa said. “When we are out with him, a lot of his behavior draws quizzical stares.”
Leo is verbal, but he occupies what his mother describes as a communicative middle ground.
“He speaks fluent requesting. He can tell you exactly what he wants. Abstract concepts are hard for him. Is he tired? Is he happy? He has a hard time with that,” she explained.
Leo also learns slowly and, like many children with autism, struggles with tasks requiring fine motor control. Manipulating cursors, mice, and tiny icons on a tiny iPod screen can prove difficult to the point of derailment.
Until recently, Leo couldn’t entertain himself. He heavily relied on others for play, education, and navigating many of the vagaries of everyday life.
Thanks to the iPad and the applications Leo and Rosa have chosen, Leo settles down for Leo time at 30-minute stretches, not only playing with relaxing apps like Leaf Jam, which allows users to gently move fall leaves while listening to banjo music, but also working on his writing (iWriteWords), spelling (FirstWords), and geography (Stack the States).
“It’s compelling on a level that no other item, gadget, toy, or video has ever been for him,” Rosa said.
The iPad even helps Leo triumph with new situations and transitions. “New is bad. Anything different is bad,” Rosa said. When Leo’s grandparents wanted to bring the grandkids onto their boat for a few nights, Rosa knew the novel and unusual situation might provoke Leo.
Using Stories2Learn, an application designed specifically for children with autism, Rosa and Leo’s sisters created a story for Leo about the trip, using their own pictures, words, and voices.
“We spent quite a while with a social story about the boat. He got to the boat, and that was a big part of his success. He stayed on the boat for two nights. He had a great time,” Rosa said.
When iPads were unveiled in April, many in the autism community put the tablet-style, touch-screen computers to use in classrooms and homes. Developers supported the movement, creating autism-centric applications. Still, Rosa had no immediate plans to buy one for Leo. But when she won an iPad with a $5 raffle ticket last spring, she found herself singing its praises with such words as “near-miracle” and “transformed.”
“I don't usually dabble in miracle-speak, but I may erect a tiny altar to Steve Jobs in the corner of our living room,” she wrote in a June 2010 Tech column for BlogHer.
Speech-language pathologist Danielle Samson, who works with children with autism, adopted the iPad almost as soon as it came out. While she doesn’t speak of the iPad in holy terms, she does believe it fosters improvements across a broad array of skill arenas.
“I’m not going to be one of those people that calls it a miracle device,” she told AOL News. “It helps to increase a lot of small factors that really affect children with autism, such as attention, motivation, interest, and their ability to interact.”
Like Rosa, she talked about how the iPad expands the everyday vistas of the children who use it.
“We’re seeing … interest and engagement with children who would normally be bouncing on a ball or flapping a piece of paper,” she said.
She’s seen kids inclined toward isolation congregate around a simple spelling game, and she’s heard a little boy who often needs prompting to talk spontaneously speak during a round of Elmo’s Monster Maker.
Toys don’t motivate children with autism in the same way.
“When you have toys and objects and books, children on the spectrum don’t play with things in a typical way,” she said. “A book allows them opportunities to self-stimulate. They’re not necessarily reading the book, they’re playing with the book.”
But applications on the easy-to-use iPad, predictable in a way humans are not, create unique situations encouraging less interactive people to interact. They engage first with the machine and then with the humans gathered around the machine.
While studies to gauge the by-the-numbers impact of iPads on children with autism are pending, the community is embracing the device and its inexpensive ($.99 and up) software programs.
Autism educators and students around the country are using iPads in the classroom. Nonprofits such as the HollyRod Foundation, run by actress Holly Robinson Peete and former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, whose son RJ has autism, have lessened the financial blow ($500 for the 16GB model) for some families.
Perhaps most importantly, educators and parents are watching their children do things they never imagined they’d do.
“More so than any other thing before, it’s really demonstrated that he’s got a lot of learning potential,” Rosa said. “He’s got a lot of smarts. He’s on the ball.”