An App Hackathon For Autism

More than a few of my friends who are parents of autistic children and of children with learning disabilities and challenges of various sorts wrote moving tributes to Steve Jobs about how the iPad and other Apple devices have made a profound difference in their children’s lives. For my son Charlie, the touchscreen interface of the iPad has been revolutionary, making it possible for him to use the device independently to listen to music, watch videos and (with a little help) practice his typing.

Other children are using the iPad as an augmentative communication device (ACC); to organize their time using visual schedules; to practice math, spelling and other academic skills and much, much more.While not the cheapest digital tablet out there, the iPad costs far less than many of the AAC devices that have previously been available.

(One other advantage of the iPad: As my husband remarked as he watched Charlie swipe and tap his way on his iPad, it has — unlike a computer — no moving parts, a highly important feature to parents who’ve seen many devices (and computers) dropped, immersed in water, thrown, pulled apart by curious fingers.)

The use of the iPad as AAC device, homework helper and so much more is possible thanks to software. On October 11, Hewlett Packard sponsored an app hackathon called Hacking Autism in Cupertino, California, with the goal of creating

…innovative, touch-enabled applications for the autism community and make this software available for free on

Nearly 100 tech professionals and advocates for individuals on the autism spectrum gathered in a conference at HP to toss around ideas for suggestions for apps that had been submitted to the website:

  • programs to help verbally challenged students communicate by selecting from a series of pictures
  • programs to assist parents in tracking their child’s learning or behavioral progress
  • programs to allow disabled children to let someone know when they are bullied

Indeed, some of those at the hackathon were on the spectrum themselves, including Intel (INTC) worker Alan Weinstock, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

As psychologist Shannon Kay points out, another reason that the iPad has been a boon is its “cool factor,” which can “help kids who have disabilities build relationships with children who don’t.” The fact that so many people are using iPads  means that a lot of people are indeed creating new apps;  means that those with disabilities are using a device that is widely used and is “special” in more than a few ways. As one mother of a son on the spectrum and friend writes:

The iPod is [Bud's] conversation starter (“Hey, Bud – what are you listening to?”). It is his shelter from the storm. It is his socially acceptable and entirely private way to restore local coherence when the world gets overwhelming, allowing him to replay brief snippets of songs or sound bites, over, and over, and over again, as he reclaims control when his world is too unpredictable, as he restores his own sense of internal order when his external environment seems in chaos. For Bud, it’s a life-saver – and a gift that only Steve Jobs could give.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it was Steve Jobs who framed a cultural philosophy that makes the world a safer place for my son to be himself, because it was Steve who challenged us to “think different.” And for a child whosebrain is designed to think different, that celebration of difference, that trumpeting of both the value and the importance of difference – well… it’s everything.

My friend Shannon has some great (bullet-pointed) suggestions about how apps can expand both learning and leisure for autistic individuals.  I’m hoping this week’s App Hackathon was just the start.


Related Care2 Coverage

Thank You, Steve Jobs: iPads and Autism

Is Technology Necessary For Learning?

School District Introduces Digital Algebra Textbook for iPad2 [VIDEO]


Photo by aperturismo

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SLK S.4 years ago


D. T.
D. T.4 years ago

It's about time!

Edgar Zuim
Edgar Zuim4 years ago

Great news. This shows that when properly applied technology is very useful.

Mary B.
Mary B.4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Gloria W.
Gloria W.4 years ago

great news!

Past Member
Lisbeth Jensen4 years ago

Thank you!

Past Member
Lisbeth Jensen4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Past Member
Lisbeth Jensen4 years ago

Just great.

Lynn C.
Lynn C.4 years ago

I found Marilyn L.'s comment very interesting. Doesn't it seem that if a business becomes huge - as in global - that it's inevitable that it will use inhumane production practices? Bigger is NOT better - it just makes more money.

Lea J.
Lea J.4 years ago

Greta news! Now let's make sure that all children can benefit from technology, not just those who can afford it.