times, Andy Shih still finds himself overwhelmed by the
groundswell of interest in autism applications heís
seen in the three years since Apple Inc. released the
his role as senior vice president for scientific affairs
at Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization based
in New York, Shih helped organize a "hacking
autism" event in San Francisco with co-sponsor
AT&T Inc. that drew 135 developers. It was the groupís
third event, following previous hackathons co-sponsored
with Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp. Over the
course of 24 hours, teams built prototypes for more than
a dozen apps.
it was all done, the winning application was a review
service called RevTilt that combined Yelp listings with
the ability to provide specific comments and ratings
about which businesses were the friendliest to autistic
families. Itís an example of just how rich and
diversified autism apps have become, Shih said.
me, itís extremely gratifying to walk into a room and
you have a couple of hundred developers there to support
families," Shih said.
as researchers just begin the process of trying to
determine how effective such technologies are, parents,
therapists and developers are racing ahead in their
attempts to tap into what they view as a powerful tool
to reach people with autism.
there also has been a surge ó albeit smaller ó in
apps for devices running Google Inc.ís Android
operating system, researchers and families credit Appleís
iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone for being the catalysts. As
a result, Appleís iOS platform remains far and away
the most popular platform for autism families and
developers of apps for people with special needs.
the end of National Autism Awareness Month in April, a
search for "autism" in Appleís App Store
brought up 1,449 apps for the iPad and 1,259 for the
iPhone. And Apple has even created a "Special
Education" section of the App Store.
range of these apps has expanded well beyond the initial
focus of helping people with autism communicate and
improve social skills to learning about emotions and
delivering basic educational lessons in a format thatís
better suited to autistic learners, Shih said.
creators appear to be drawn by a mix of instincts to
help others and the sense that there is potentially a
sizable market for these apps since, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 50
school-age children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with
some form of autism, an increase of 72 percent from five
cares less about the motivation and more about the
effect. To that end, Autism Speaks and others are trying
to take a broader perspective on the initial and
unexpected outpouring of interest in creating apps for
people with autism.
addition to holding the hackathons, Autism Speaks has
created a venture and philanthropy division to provide
seed funding to connect developers with other sources of
private and public funding. The organization even
recently held its first conference to bring developers
and investors together.
Autism Speaks has received a dramatic increase in
funding requests for research proposals to study the
effectiveness of these new technologies, Shih said. That
will be challenging, given that the causes of autism are
still poorly understood, and that people on the autistic
spectrum can have a wide range of social, sensory and
Shane, director of the Center for Communication
Enhancement and the Autism Language Program at Childrenís
Hospital Boston, said while heís eager to see more
studies, his experience with the iPad and autistic
children has been so overwhelmingly positive that heís
content to push forward with finding new and better ways
to use it.
said his group is working on a "feature matching
process" to help families determine which apps are
best suited to the needs of their children.
clinical evidence is still emerging," Shane said.
"But the excitement and interest in these
technologies exists because they are working."
Thompson, a school psychologist at the Orange County,
Calif., Department of Education, who wrote some of the
first autism apps, said heís trying to find ways to
make their use more effective. Many educators and
parents, for instance, like the iPad and other mobile
gadgets simply because they can be used as a powerful
reward to reinforce a desired behavior: Complete a task,
get some iPad time.
understandable, considering that it often can be hard to
find rewards that motivate some autistic children. But
Thompson said heíd like more of the iPad time used for
educational purposes, rather than just getting bonus
"Angry Birds" time. For instance, Thompson has
created a system in which a classroom with many kids on
the autistic spectrum use iPads that can be beamed onto
a large-screen TV using an Apple TV unit to enable them
to communicate with each other in ways they might not
struggle becomes how to structure it," Thompson
said. "Of course kids are going to like the games.
The real skill becomes: How can you get teachers to
embed that into the classroom setting to really promote
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the number of apps has increased, so has the challenge
of finding the most reliable ones. Lois Jean Brady, a
San Francisco Bay Area speech pathologist and assisted
technology specialist who wrote the book "Apps for
Autism," said sheís also focused on helping
families find the most effective apps as their numbers
have multiplied. It can be a challenge because some app
developers are tempted to tag their apps as
autism-related, even if their real use is much more
also pointed out that in their enthusiasm for the iPad
in particular, many parents and educators havenít
taken the time to understand the range of its potential
uses. One of the reasons Apple products are so popular
with the special needs community is because they all
have "accessibility" settings built in. Under
the "general settings" menu, thereís a
"guided access" option that can keep the
device locked on just one app so the user doesnít
switch, say, from a social lesson to a video game app.
folks just go out and get it, assuming they can hand it
to a child and thatís it," Brady said. "Iím
surprised at the number of people who donít know about
some of the accessibility features. The iPad is just the
muscle to reach these kids. And a lot of people arenít
taking the time to learn about how to use that muscle
and how powerful it can be."