Autism and the Promise of the iPad

Many autistic people have an affinity for computers. This became widely recognized in the 1990s, when the migration of computer programmers to Silicon Valley caused the autism rate there to triple. Something about the logical reactions of computers appeals to autistic sensibilities, which I’ve witnessed in my mildly autistic son.

Given this affinity, it’s not surprising that computers have long been used to treat autism. Until recently, however, the necessary hardware for people who couldn’t already use a PC was prohibitively expensive. But tablet computers are now providing new options, and due in part to a recent 60 Minutes segment, “Apps for Autism,” the iPad has gotten the most attention.

A Las Vegas couple, Gail Pubols and Gordon Gilbert, discovered this last year when they got their autistic son, Gage, an iPad. At first, he would only touch the screen with the side of his thumb, since autistic children often have trouble pointing. But by using apps such as Balloon Maker to blow up and pop balloons, he soon started pointing with his index finger. He also learned eye contact with the app Look in My Eyes, and learned words with interactive books such as Green Eggs and Ham.

Gage’s parents planned to buy Proloquo, a communication system for people who cannot speak, to allow Gage to “talk” by pointing at pictures, but they never had to because Gage started speaking on his own within six months. Gage’s parents don’t give the iPad full credit for his drastic improvement, but they’re convinced it helped.

They’re so convinced, they started the Gage Rufus Foundation to provide the Clark County School District with iPads for all of its autism classrooms, about 100 to start with. They also want to change the public perception of autism away from the image of Rain Man toward that of Temple Grandin, where even severely autistic children can look forward to leading engaged and productive lives.

Gage’s parents participated in the Pepsi Refresh Challenge, an online grant program, in December. Although they didn’t win, they beat more than 300 other charities to finish 26th, which raised their public profile. They have since met with comedian Vinnie Favorito and the Las Vegas 51s about potential charity events. Whether or not those events happen, Pubols and Gilbert remain committed to getting iPads for local classrooms and providing other children with the same technology that has made such a difference in Gage’s life.