Autism Apps

Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition featured a story about a Queens school for children within the autism spectrum that use iPads in class and to play in their high school band.

It’s the type of story we’re accustomed to hearing at ACT | The App Association. Most of the country first learned about the incredible impact apps have had educating children with autism from Leslie Stahl’s Sixty Minutes segment on apps for autism in 2011.

We learned even more about these remarkable breakthroughs from Houston speech therapist Betsy Furler. Our paths first crossed at SXSW where she spoke to a packed room about the results her group Bridging Apps was seeing in tablet-based therapy for students with autism.

She explained how much value she found in a little-known app called iBabyButtons. Sitting in the audience, I sat straight up. I knew that app! Its creator, Mindy Douglas, had come with me to brief Senate offices the year before on apps and education. Her company, Software Smoothie, had attracted a lot of attention and was featured in an ABC news segment in her hometown Birmingham, Alabama.

Betsy explained to the Austin audience that speech therapists working with students with autism use a wide range of apps created for purposes other than speech therapy.  In this case, iBabyButtons was intended to help toddlers identify words and people.  The parent selects a picture of an object that floats in a bubble. When it’s touched, the tablet sounds out the word.

It turns out this app is also very successful in teaching vocabulary to young students with autism. Mindy and Betsy have since had the chance to talk about the app which has been renamed PhotoButtons reflecting its wider appeal.

At SXSW, Betsy shared moving stories about the success of children who thrived using mobile technology. Students of hers who were non-communicative suddenly opened up using a tablet.

She describes it like this:

Children with autism commonly find direct communication uncomfortable. Making eye contact can be very difficult for them, making instruction very challenging. Often, our progress can be slow and unpredictable.

When I first introduced the iPad to the learning process, a whole new world opened up for us. A tablet provides a unique teaching tool for students with autism because it serves as an intermediary, allowing for indirect communication that is less intimidating.

Students that had been difficult to engage suddenly embraced the iPad. As a tactile device, it was interactive and easy to use.  My students and I now work through problems on the tablet and they can respond to my questions through its interface.

Betsy has since become an important member of ACT and a leading voice for tablet education. She has come to Washington, D.C. for our last two Fly Ins to tell her story to lawmakers and FTC commissioners. She recounts the story of Mia, a nonverbal child who finds her voice through apps on the iPad.

Our paths crossed again this year in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show where she was on hand with her Bridging Apps colleagues to receive a Verizon Powerful Answers award. Betsy recently launched her own company Therapy Circles where she continues her autism work and still serves as a contributor to Bridging Apps. We’ll be keeping an eye on her progress and look forward to her next trip to Washington for the 2015 Fly In.

flickr image: Shannon Des Roches Rosa