Thursday, October 7, 2010

Autism, Apps, and Adults

Corina Lynn Becker

There's been quite a bit of news lately about how Apple's iPad can assist Autistic children. The stories I have heard are wonderful and hopeful, on how iPads and iPods could bring about a new era of portable supports, learning, and communicative devices, and independence. It has been pointed out that the portable devices, while not cheap, are inexpensive when compared to other specialized devices -- which are often too bulky to carry around and be applicable to various locations and situations.

With the development of specialized apps, a child, parent, teacher or caregiver can carry a small, slim device filled with programs to communicate, understand how to go places, be prompted on doing tasks, keep organized, learn social skills, filter sensory input, and regain calm from stress. For those with motor control problems, the large screen of the iPad offers more accessibility and opportunities for skill development, while still maintaining the portability and function of the iPod Touch. The added bonus of it being a “cool” item also opens a child up to social interaction and acceptance among peers. 

It is, as many have stated, a miracle, or at least as near of a miracle one can get in terms of assistive technology.

This is all very good; there is just one problem. The stories centers on Autistic children, ignoring the potential that this technology has to impact the lives of Autistic adults as well.

Now, I understand why the Autism community is so focused on children; teach skills early enough in life and a child has a supposed better outcome later in life. However, I think that the Autism community in its devotion has forgotten about the Autistic adults, the present ones who have grown up with and without the diagnosis, supports, and services that are available now; the adults our children will become.

I know of many Autistic adults who benefit from the use of apps, myself included. 

Even before I discovered the iPod Touch and iPads, I’ve known how little devices helped me out.  When I was a child, I used a Walkman on the long rides to my grandparents to ease motion sickness.  As a teen, I realized I could use my Discman to block out unwanted sounds when I studied and provided me with my own “soundtrack” to keep me going.

In 2005, I received my first MP3 player, a 30GB iPod Video, which gradually started to go everywhere with me.  I took it with me on my walk to class, as a way to keep from getting bored as a way to keep up a pace that got me to class on time. I listened to it while sitting in noisy lounges, food courts, and cafeterias to buffer out the wall of potential overload as I reviewed course materials and waited for my next class. I brought it with me to study, as up-beat music kept me engaged and energetic. 

When I returned home from school, my iPod started to come with me during my family’s walks and long trips, to provide some sensory relief so I was able to interact even when strained to the max. As I settled into my new place in the city, I listened to it on the bus, and was able to go grocery shopping, fill out necessary forms, and go pay my rent because I had a musical buffer between me and the overwhelming world of intense sound. By occupying one sense, my other often-beaten senses could tolerate more, and I was able to do more. 

For five years, I named my iPod my Personal Sanity Device and took it everywhere.  Gradually, I began to pray over it that during this next trip, the battery wouldn’t mysteriously die, or the hard drive suddenly shut down.  For five years, it hung on past its warrantee and expected battery life. Until this September.

This September, I looked at my long-lasting friend, and gave a deep sigh as it erased all of its memory on me for the last time. It was time, I decided, to get a new iPod. 

And as it happened, I had a pretty good idea of what would be my next iPod, my new Personal Sanity Device, based on the reviews, news articles and feedback from people online. 

As I’ve said before, the iPad, iPod, and other pocket computers, have great potential for assisting both autistic children and adults. The question is do we need to develop apps specifically for autistic adults, or can apps used by autistic children and non-autistic adults be used? 

In some ways, this is what my blog the Autistic Adult App Project is trying to find out, whether already existing apps are suitable to meet the needs of autistic adults, and how affordable they are for people with a variety of incomes. 

While I think that some existing apps are suitable and have their uses, I strongly suspect that there is a need for adult-specific apps, as adults have different needs than children. This isn’t to say that some apps designed for children can’t be used for adults, but rather that some of the subject material within those apps may not be appropriate for an adult, and may not even cover adult needs.

The way I see it, autistic adults do not need the same amount of social skills training and academic related apps as children. However, for those that require and want to develop more skills or work on specific areas of behaviour, the apps should be suitable to the maturity of the adult and allow them either work with a support worker, or self-direct, as per their desires. 

For the most part though, I see apps not as a teaching tool, but as a supportive device for managing functional skills, organizing, dealing with stress, and as a means of communication. Sensory overload can be managed by a range of different apps, not to mention by an iPod’s original function: playing music. Text-to-speech and PECS-based apps may need some customizing for adult needs, but are capable of providing alternative communication for non-verbal autistics, or even for those moments of stress where verbal skills are temporarily lost. 

Other organizational and productivity apps already exist, but can be used to become more independent in remembering appointments, when to take medications, reminders to bathe, eat, and other daily tasks. As there are versions designed for adults in mind, these may not require as much customization for autistic adults and the main hurdle is learning to use the apps efficiently. 

Such apps may not completely eliminate the need for a support worker, but they open up new possibilities in terms of independence, and could that lessen how much a person needs a support worker. This is, of course, the main point of educating and helping children develop from an early age, so that they can be more independent and lead happy and engaged lives as a part of the community, to the best of their abilities.

It is my firm belief that it is possible to support autistic adults with a wide range of abilities and needs in this manner, and that the autism community should be assisting in the development of apps to be used on a long term basis. As we know, a person does not stop being autistic at adulthood, and often  requires lifelong accommodations and supports. So when we look towards the future of current children, we should also be regarding the futures of current autistic adults, as a part of our community.