As a commercial software expert for the financial services industry, Ted Conley was frustrated with the technology that a speech therapist recommended to help his developmentally disabled son. So he decided to build his own application.
In place of an unwieldy and expensive device with buttons that his son struggled to press, Conley developed a series of apps that allow the now 3-year-old Pierce to signal words and sentences by lightly touching a series of familiar pictures on an iPad screen, which prompts an audio program to play the words out loud.
Conley's line of "TapSpeak" programs are among scores of new apps available to help children with autism or other conditions that interfere with their ability to speak, learn or socialize.
Most of the early apps have been associated with Apple's iPad, but some are available for a variety of touch-screen gadgets, including those running Google's Android. Hewlett-Packard recently announced plans for a volunteer "hackathon" to create a series of touch-screen apps in conjunction with a national advocacy group, Autism Speaks.
Parents and educators say the ease of use, visual impact and intuitive nature of a touch screen, combined with the portability and "cool factor" of a tablet computer, have led to near-miraculous breakthroughs for children with a variety of disabilities.
"These tablets are giving children a voice," said Gary James, a Connecticut father who started a website to review apps for children with special needs, based on his own experience with a 6-year-old son, Benjamin, who has autism.
For some children with autism, experts say, images on a computer screen draw closer attention than pictures on paper. For older kids, a sleek tablet doesn't carry the stigma of bulky, conspicuous special education equipment. Most importantly, a touch screen eliminates the difficulty that a child with autism or motor disabilities might have with manipulating a keyboard or understanding the connection between a mouse and cursor.
"All you need is a finger on the screen. There's no disconnect," said Shannon Des Roches Rosa, a Redwood City, Calif., blogger and mother of a 10-year-old with autism; her son Leo is learning to recognize words and read them with the help of iPad apps.
Parents are learning about these apps by word of mouth and autism blogs, as well as from therapists, teachers and programs run by nonprofits like Santa Clara, Calif.-based Via Services. Apple has also featured the apps in its iTunes store and some promotional materials.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs told an interviewer last year that he hadn't foreseen the appeal of Apple's devices for the autism community, but he was pleased to hear that people found them beneficial.
There are apps available, for example, to help children learn to spell by tracing letters with their fingertip. Others help sound out words. Another category lets parents use pictures to help a child understand tasks and schedules - such as getting dressed before eating breakfast and then boarding the bus for school.
Dozens of apps have been created by independent developers and parents like Conley; others have been adapted by established educational software companies. But while they are thrilled by the proliferation, many advocates for children with autism and related conditions have wish lists for additional programs, such as software to help older children with disabilities, and apps for other devices besides Apple's.
"I think it's always good to have more options and choices," said Danielle Samson, a speech pathologist who has demonstrated iPad apps for families of autistic children, in seminars organized by Via Services. She said she'd like to see more apps for other devices and software platforms, including Android and Windows, and apps designed to help children with grammar and social skills.
Rosa, a former video game producer who said Apple's iPad has changed her son's life, said she would prefer more choices, better quality and lower prices.
"Right now it's kind of a Wild West in terms of app development," she explained. "A lot of people who have experience with kids with special needs are putting out apps. They have great ideas and great content, but unfortunately they sometimes have clunky designs and clunky interfaces."
The Hewlett-Packard project, called "Hacking Autism," aims to combine the talents of Silicon Valley programmers with the expertise of groups like Autism Speaks, a national nonprofit that supports research and services for people with autism, said James Taylor, director of HP's Innovation Program Office.
Taylor said HP officials got the idea after learning that special-needs students at Hope Technology School in Palo Alto, Calif., were enthusiastic about using educational software on touch-screen computers that HP makes for desktop use. By some estimates, autism affects 1 out of 110 U.S. children and there are indications the rate is increasing; Taylor said many people in the tech community have encountered autism through friends or family members.
HP recently launched a website, hackingautism.org, where anyone can submit ideas for touch-screen apps that could help people with autism. Programmers who visit the site can sign up to work on the ideas at a volunteer "hackathon" in October.
The ideas will be reviewed and refined by a steering committee of autism experts, and the resulting apps may go through further rounds of improvement before they are released publicly, Taylor said.
HP, of course, has an interest in promoting new apps for its own TouchPad tablet, which competes with Apple's iPad and uses a rival software platform called webOS. But Taylor said the Hacking Autism apps will be made available at no cost, and the project won't be limited to any tablet or operating system.
"Although we love our platforms, what's important is we get the solutions to families," he said.
Several software-makers have released Android versions of their autism-related apps. But others say they're reluctant to work with other platforms, since Apple's iPad was the first and continues to be the most popular model of tablet.
Several parents applauded the HP project, including Rosa, who said she's often frustrated that the iPad doesn't play videos or animation based on Adobe's widely used Flash software.
Having apps for a variety of devices "will give parents and caregivers more choice to find something they are comfortable with, and have it be in their budget," added Jeremy Robb, a technology instructor at the University of Utah who blogs about autism and his 6-year-old son, Jonathan.
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More information: ON THE WEB:
-Autism Speaks has apps and links at www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/resource-library/autism-apps
-Gary James reviews apps for children with special needs at www.a4cwsn.com
-Shannon Des Roches Rosa blogs about parenting, autism and iPad apps at www.squidalicious.com
-Rob Gorski blogs about his sons, autism and Android at lostandtired.com
-Hewlett-Packard describes its Hacking Autism project at hackingautism.org
-You can find apps in the iTunes and Android markets by typing "autism" in the search field.