Apps for Autism; Autism for Apps

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They have only been in the supermarket for five minutes before, ‘Bananas on special for 2.99,’ is blasted over the loud speaker. Samantha Harpley, 35, begins to panic. She looks at her five year old son Xavier, and braces herself. Xavier was already irritable and anxious before entering Coles. This unfamiliar noise confuses him and he is sent into a sensory meltdown. At this moment, there is only one thing that will calm him. His iPad.

Although, this may sound like the typical work of a spoilt brat, be assured that this isn’t the case. Xavier has Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In today’s society, there is a constant debate about the negative impact technology is having on our children’s social lives. But, for the 1 in 120 children diagnosed with Autism, the opposite is true: technology is giving them a voice.

Speech Pathologist, Catherine Crestani, introduced special education apps into Xavier’s therapy two years ago, and since then, has seen vast improvements in his development.  Mrs Harpley is beaming, “We went from being very delayed, to going to a mainstream school next year… he has come a long way.”

Ms Crestani swears by the Ipad and has seen magnificent results by using apps in conjunction with therapy.
“Because people with Autism are such visual learners the Ipad really engages them.” she says.

Three months ago, the Harpley family were given funding for an Ipad and Autism apps by the ADHC to aid Xavier’s learning. Now, he can use apps such as Alpha Tots and Write my name, to learn the alphabet and improve his fine motor skills.

Not only can apps be used for social and educational development, they can also be used to aid communication.

In the past, one of the only ways non-verbal children could express themselves, was through an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device. The problem? These devises cost between $15,000 to $20,000. However, now AAC apps can be downloaded and they work exactly like the device.

“It’s crazy, kids can now afford to communicate,” say Ms Crestani.

So what are the best Apps to download for your child? Ms Crestani enthusiastically rattles off a list, from Sentence Builder, to the sensory calming app, Pocket Pond, all of which were created in the U.S or U.K. I ask whether there are any Australian made Apps that she would recommend.

“There are some good ones starting to come out now that are Australian, but they are pretty rare,” she says.

In the backstreets on McMahons Point, Sydney, I find casually clad, Kim Grantham, working hard in his office. Mr Grantham is the Creative Director of StudioEmotion, and brainchild behind the App: AutismXpress.

Traditionally a web design company, Mr Grantham wanted to venture into mobile.

“We were working with Autism Spectrum Australia on their website, redesigning their online presence, and we thought we would throw in an iPhone App. You know, just to give back,” said Mr Grantham.

Launched in March 2010, AutismXpress proved to be a great success, racking up 30,000 downloads in the first two months. A second version was then released in March 2011 and has currently had approximately 400,000 downloads. Most of those coming from the U.S.

Mr Grantham pulls out his iPhone and loads AutismXpress for me to play. I can see the appeal, the app uses colourful cartoon faces in conjunction with music to help children with Autism recognise and express emotions.

“I think people feel passionate about it because it’s for a good cause, and it’s for kids and you do anything you can for kids,” Mr Grantham says.

Despite the seemingly wide knowledge about Autism Apps, use of them within Australia is fairly low. The lack of coverage means many parents are not aware that this type of support is available.

Sydney mother of three, Jaki Lynn, 29, has never heard about these Apps, but talks about her sons infatuation with technology.

“Computers is one of the main things he just loves and he is calm and he can use them really well. We often use computer time as a reward system for him, ” she says.

Ms Crestani explains how people with autism are generally very savvy with technology. This contributes to the success of these apps, as children are able interact with a medium they love, whilst learning important developmental skills.

Mrs Lynn’s son Liam, 10, was diagnosed with high functioning Autism two years ago. She painfully relays how it took three years, and two misdiagnoses, until she was told Liam had ASD.  Mrs Lynn isn’t the only parent whose child has had to endure lengthy testing before ASD is diagnosed. In Australia, many concerned parents are still waiting for an answer.

Even with diagnosis, Mrs Lynn explains how it is hard to find the right educational tools for Liam, as the spectrum is so large and diverse. Autism Spectrum Disorder ranges from children who are highly functional, like Xavier and Liam, to those who are completely non-verbal. And next year, amendments to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, will result in Asperger’s Syndrome also being classified as ASD.

Mr Crestani urges that it is because of the diverse nature of ASD, that the Ipad is so powerful. Now, parents and healthcare professionals are able to ‘choose which apps will be best for their child.’

So, where is the proof? Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), are currently conducting the first ever case study into the benefits of using applications. However, with only individual testimonials and no factual evidence yet, some parents have reservations about using iPads.

Mother, Melissa Simpson says, “I would worry that my child would become dependent on it.”

Ms Crestani agrees that the Ipad is not to be used as a substitute for social behaviours. “The issue with the Ipad is it’s not a people interaction, so you’ve got to use it in such a way that you still include them socially and still have that interaction with you,” she said.

“I guess it is one of those things that if you monitor it, it can be really helpful… I reckon parents should be taught the best way to use it, otherwise it might just be used as a pacifier,” Ms Simpson said.

The Harpley family have ensured that strict guidelines are placed around ‘Ipad time.’ For Xavier, he only uses it for homework and when he is feeling over-stimulated.

“I guess you have to look at what benefits each child, and each child on the spectrum is going to be different, and that’s how it benefits Xavier,” Mrs Harpley says.

However, she admits, “It’s not always just for the kids… when Xavier is having a meltdown, it can be a great tool for us, as parents, as well.”

With iPad and earphones in tow, Mother and son can now both enjoy their weekly grocery shop.

Written by Sally Tucker, 1st December 2011.

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