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Using iPads for Autism: Are There Still Too Many Questions?

Parents have told me how iPads and other tablet computers have given their children with autism a voice they never had. Students with autism are communicating in new ways and the secrets of their minds are for the first time, being unlocked.

But in a recent article in CIO (Chief Information Officers) magazine some members of the autism advocacy community are questioning the therapeutic value of iPads.

No one has actually studied which apps have a therapeutic benefit, Mark Sirkin, vice president of social marketing and online fund-raising for Autism Speaks, told the magazine. Parents may hear anecdotes about apps dramatically changing a child's life, but there is no measurable proof that the apps really work.

"The challenge with ... apps is a lot are developed by well-meaning parents but under no guidance with autism experts," Sirkin told CIO. "For us, it brings in questions as an evidenced-based organization and we're starting to ask: Does any of this actually make any difference ... the danger is that the iPad becomes a really expensive toy."

A Boston speech therapist interviewed for the story made a similar observation.

"The dark side of all the bells and whistles is that in some cases it's too much, and kids get overly focused on things that jingle and jangle," said Karen Head, who has created apps to develop children's social interaction skills. "As a therapist, we want them to listen to us."

Jennifer Sullivan, the executive director of the Morgan Autism Center, in San Jose, Calif., which uses iPads and apps with some of its students, told CIO she has found that some children can get drawn to the patterns in an app rather than actually learning the content it is trying to provide.

"It's a little bit tricky because it's such a compelling medium for kids with autism," she told the magazine, "they want to do it intensely."

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