Moving computers away from text: iPods and iPads

15 Jun

Visual. As a parent of a young autistic child I hear that term a lot. Visual schedule. Picture Exchange Communication System (OK, not using the word “visual”, but related) Autistics are visual learners.

I’ve had this piece as a draft for some time. Then I saw a recent post by Shannon Des Roches Rosa entitled The iPad: a Near-Miracle for My Son With Autism. I had to finish this.

Consider computers. Computers started as language based–text entry and output–devices. Anyone remember punch cards? Teletype terminals? The story goes that Steve Jobs went to Xerox’s research center (Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC) and was shown three things: object oriented programing, networking and the graphical user interface and the mouse. All of those were to be major advancements and, of those, he fixated on the graphical user interface.

I’ve written in the past about the program Proloquo2Go in the past in a post Insurance bureaucracies slow to catch up on new AAC devices, as well as a recent attempt by a special education teacher who was trying to win a grant to obtain iPod touch’s and Proloquo2Go. I first heard about this AAC solution from a post on by Dora Raymaker.

Here is a video discussing Proloquo2Go.

Beyond just AAC functionality, the iPod/iPhone/iPad user interface has some distinct advantages. It is not text-based. Doesn’t take a keyboard. Sure, some functionality and some content require text, but much can be accomplished without it. Want to watch a video? No need to set up a DVD player. No need to navigate some “on-demand” menu.

As Shannon points out, the iPad is not just a big iPod touch. She puts it quite well:

After Leo spent five minutes with his iPad, I realized that any assumptions I had about it being merely a bigger or a more breakable iPod touch were idiotic. It’s a tough little device. And for Leo, the larger scale of the iPad makes everything he wants to interact with just the right size, and therefore totally accessible. He may have a hard time writing on paper or typing on a computer keyboard, but he is a world-class iPad swiper and tapper, and his excellent visual memory means he can use that swiping and tapping to navigate between apps and videos with precision.

The portability of the iPod Touch (and the lower cost) makes it very portable. Visual schedules can be made on-the-fly without need for huge icon books. Portable music and videos can be excellent for regulation, or just plain entertainment! As Shannon points out in her piece, there are a lot of apps and games which are very accessible.

And, they are cool.

I am quite taken with the iPad/iPod technology where I’ve seen it in action. They are expensive (the iPad starts at $500), and look oh-so-fragile. But they are really much more than toys.

12 Responses to “Moving computers away from text: iPods and iPads”

  1. passionlessDrone June 16, 2010 at 03:22 #

    Hi Sullivan –

    My wife will not let up on purchasing an ipod / ipad for our son. But I wonder aloud, just how much can one household take? How much? My son is also quite the whiz at resurrecting toy store and / or monsters incorporated snipets from utube on my iphone, even though I am positive I’ve erased them from the cache.

    Tragically, however, we cannot seem to get him to want / try to use the device for anything but media playing. But he’ll play the hell out of some Pixar on the things.

    – pD

    • Sullivan June 16, 2010 at 04:59 #


      I bet you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that I really like Pixar movies…

  2. Tracy June 16, 2010 at 04:50 #

    haha PD. This is your WIFE. (you left this page up on your computer). If you were as clever as you think you are, you’d know that the ipod/ipad don’t support flash, which requires.

    This post cements it. We’re buying one.

  3. Liz Ditz June 16, 2010 at 05:31 #


    I know Shannon and her son in real life and have played with him on the iPad (we’re friends and live in the same town). He doesn’t use much spontaneous language.

    Aside from what Shannon described in the article, three points:

    1. something else new I’ve noticed about Shannon’s son, who is nine, since the advent of the iPad:

    He seems to like doing stuff on his iPad when the random adult (for example, me) is sitting next to him and is in shoulder to shoulder or head to head contact — the adult’s not really engaged in the game, but is not disengaged either. He’s the one initiating physical contact while playing.

    This is different to the pre-iPad days, when he would play similar hard-copy games (shape puzzles, matching, sorting etc.) without soliciting another’s engagement or physical contact.

    What I’m trying to say here is the iPad isn’t socially isolating but is increasing social (but nonverbal) interaction.

    2. The iPad has all the stuff (games, videos, pictures) all right within his own command. Pre iPad, either (a) somebody would have to notice that he was a bit bored or disengaged, and then offer him a verbal or visual choice of activities from the Giant Shoulder Bag of Activities or (b) he would have to request a game or activity. (b) happened a lot less often than (a).

    3. Compared to hard-copy games and tasks, he’ll engage longer and deeper. In other words, he will engage in many more repetitions of (say) spelling practice, and because errors are given feedback immediately, he is practicing correctly much more frequently.

    I think the radical drop in price for learning/AAC devices (such as the iPad etc). is going to be a game-changer for kids with communication challenges.

  4. jypsy June 16, 2010 at 17:04 #


    Click to access ASD%20iTouch%20apps%20Welsford%202010.pdf

    Apps for ASD iPod Touch Project
    Teacher recommended APPS for children with ASD
    Prepared by Barbara Welsford, M.Ed., ATP SSRSB & Anita Kingdon
    March 27, 2010

    • Sullivan June 16, 2010 at 17:18 #


      thanks a lot–that is a great resource.

  5. David N. Brown June 16, 2010 at 20:35 #

    Something I worked into a couple of my SF/fantasy stories: An illiterate Aborigine who still uses a computer. I based it on a tablet computer I used as a geology student, which for the purposes of field geology really didn’t need a key board.
    PS- Shameless plug: I self-published both stories as the ebook “Walking Dead 2” on Amazon.

  6. Julian Frost June 18, 2010 at 19:46 #

    @David N. Brown:
    OT. This may interest you. Researchers wanted to gather data on animals in the Kalahari Desert. They gave Khoisan Bushmen mobile devices. The Khoisan have no written language. The mobile devices possessed icons for the different animals. When a Khoisan found the spoor or dung, or witnessed an animal, he pressed the icon corresponding to the animal.

  7. David N. Brown June 18, 2010 at 23:12 #

    Definitely interesting… I based my character (“Old Adoni”) on a real person I heard of, an illiterate Indian in AZ who was employed by the police as a tracker. “Native” peoples all over the world have demonstrated remarkable knowledge and abilities (at least, remarkable to outsiders) which would obviously be useful to science and industry. The biggest problem in practice is creating a means for them to record what they observe in a mutually intelligible way.

  8. Corina Becker September 28, 2010 at 07:49 #

    With encouragement from various people online, including Shannon I think, I’m writing an article about ipod/ipad for autistic adults.

    Recently, I got an ipod touch, since my Personal Sanity Device, aka ipod video, died (I really could not justify an iPad; maybe it I were entering full-time, on-campus school again, cause I can see it combining my old AlphaSmart Dana and ipod, to take notes and jot down research things).

    I’ve picked out some of the apps from the project and reviewing them on here: Other autistic persons and even parents and caregivers of autistic children are welcome to submit reviews.
    I’m a bit limited to the lite/free versions of things, since I don’t have any money. So I don’t know whether I can review the Proloque2Go, but it looks like a combination of text-to-speech based on PECS.


  1. » Autism Blog – Moving computers away from text: iPods and iPads … - June 16, 2010

    […] See the article here: Autism Blog – Moving computers away from text: iPods and iPads … […]

  2. Tweets that mention Autism Blog - Moving computers away from text: iPods and iPads « Left Brain/Right Brain -- - June 16, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David T, iPad fans. iPad fans said: iPad news: Moving computers away from text: iPods and iPads – Left Brain/Right Brain (blog) […]

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