Thank You, Steve Jobs: iPads and Autism
Perhaps it sounds grandiose and over the top but I’ll just say it: I’m not sure our 14-year-old son Charlie would survive adolescence and his teenage years without his iPad. I feel forever grateful to the late Steve Jobs for inventing the iPad, and I was shocked and saddened to hear that he had left us on Wednesday.
Until we placed an iPad in his hands just over a year ago, Charlie had been ambivalent about computers and technology. Charlie is on the severe end of the autism spectrum, with huge challenges in his abilities to speak and communicate, especially when it comes to his academics. He has always loved music and photos and, for 13 years, we guided his fingers to push buttons, tap keyboards, move a computer mouse, in an attempt to teach him to use CD players and a computer whose hard drive I had loaded up with digital photos. Charlie wanted to hear the music and see the pictures, but he always seemed to get stuck knowing which buttons to manipulate. Coordinating his fingers and eyes to operate a computer mouse was a major challenge that Charlie always needed our help for. To hear the music he wanted to hear and see the photos, he was ultimately reliant on someone else and this proved frustrating.
Enter the iPad. I was dubious at first, mindful of the laptops that we’d lost after they were thrown or had their keyboards ripped out. Charlie had had iPods of various generations but (something we have only become aware of recently) he dislikes using headphones. Because he can’t really read, he was unable to choose which songs he’d hear. At least one iPod met a watery fate in a certain household appliance. Then my parents and aunts in California read an article about how much the iPad had helped my friend Shannon’s son Leo and in the mail came a check, followed by an email from my dad: Go buy one for Charlie.
Charlie warms up slowly to new things and first left the iPad to gather dust. I showed him the music and photos and how to type into the search box on the YouTube app — and then, one day we saw him poking, swiping, tapping on the iPad screen with his long fingers. For the first time, here was a device that he could use entirely on his own, to listen to music and see photos. The touch screen, the size of the iPad (1.0 — Charlie is quite content with the original iPad; he never has a care for having “the latest”), the vividness of images on the display, the auditory qualities: All are perfectly suited for him. That is to say, the design of the iPad was exactly what Charlie needed and could independently, naturally figure out how to use.
Photo by the author
To me, the iPad’s design is the reason so many kids on the autism spectrum have benefited so much from it. Charlie is only interested in the most basic of apps on the iPad and is not interested in games. He dutifully listens to the social stories and picture schedules I create for him using this app and looks at some picture books. He doesn’t use the iPad as an augmentative speech device as some children do, but sometimes the photo Charlie has put on the iPad screen reveals a clue about what he is thinking.
The iPad has wound itself into Charlie’s life, helping him navigate periods of anxiety, helping us understand better what he is communicating and giving him endless hours of amusement, principally in the form of all the music I’ve loaded onto the iPad (including the Kinks, the Replacements, a bit of Gregorian chant, Disney songs, Sugarcane Harris, John Coltrane).
Untold thanks to Steve Jobs for all he did — for helping Charlie get through a transitional time of life, no mean feat — and hail and farewell, ave atque vale.
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Photo by the author