iPad App Helps Children With Autism Learn Life Skills

SpecialNeedsWare has developed an app for the iPad that incorporates images and video to acclimate autistic kids to daily tasks.

Software company SpecialNeedsWare has developed an iPad app that allows children with autism to work on their communication skills using the Apple tablet.

Launched in February, the app AutisMate provides a customized library of images, sounds, signs and symbols to ease behavioral processing for autistic kids. Video modeling aids children in developing social, communication, functional and behavioral skills.

"It's an iPad app that really allows those with autism to connect with the world around them through giving them a means of communication and learning new life skills," Jonathan Izak, founder and CEO of SpecialNeedsWare, told eWEEK. "The app allows you in intuitive ways to use visuals from users' own environments to communicate and learn these various skills."

Children with autism have difficulty with oral communication, and the app allows them to communicate their needs in a particular environment.

Visual scene displays present interactive photos with hotspots that allow autistic users click on symbols within images. With AutisMate, "a child can tap on a fridge and see items inside," Izak noted.

The app also allows users to view videos or stories that teach about specific behaviors or activities.

AutisMate is an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tool that uses pictures and symbols to help an autistic child communicate. It incorporates a grid-based system that allows users to tap on symbols to build sentences.

"If you tap on a sentence bar, it will read out the entire sentence," Izak said.

Izak developed the app after seeing his 12-year-old brother, Oriel (pictured here), cope with autism. Compared with an 8-pound device that hangs around the user's neck and costs thousands of dollars, an app on the iPad proved more practical for autistic kids to learn about daily tasks, he said. The iPad costs a fraction of the price of traditional AAC devices, according to SpecialNeedsWare.

The appearance of the iPad is less intrusive than the heavier, more expensive devices, Izak noted.

AutisMate allows autistic children to use the iPad's GPS features to learn about scenes based on their current location, such as the kitchen or bedroom in their home, or scenes around a school.

The app also teaches about tasks in a workplace such as clearing windows, folding pizza boxes or working in a car wash, Izak noted.

AutisMate provides help with learning how to carry out ordinary tasks independently such as brushing your teeth. By using the app, a child nearly mute from autism learns how to navigate tasks such as creating a sandwich at a local cafe, according to SpecialNeedsWare.

Even children who are 4 to 8 months old respond to the images on the iPad, said Melanie Johnston, a speech and language pathologist and an autism and behavior consultant at Brite Success in Houston.

"If we are able to accomplish that, I know we will be able to accomplish great milestones with older children and young adults," Johnston told the AutisMate blog.

The app allows autistic individuals to watch videos on how to answer the phone, navigate a grocery store, wash their hands, tell time or cope with a doctor's office visit.

In addition, the McCarton School in New York City is using AutisMate to incorporate the iPad into its classroom lessons. Boston Children's Hospital is also working with AutisMate to use the iPad in its research on autism.

The IT industry is working to encourage developers to create apps that help children with autism. On April 12 and 13, AT&T and Autism Speaks held a hackathon to spur the development of apps that help autistic people. Participants used APIs from AT&T's mobile platform to create apps based on ideas from visits to the Facebook page of Autism Speaks.