February 10, 2012, 4:18 PM — With one honk, the course of Shannon Des Roches Rosa's day abruptly changed.
"It's my son," Rosa announced, as she quickly removed the microphone pinned to her shirt. "I've gotta run," she said, as she hurried out the door of her sprawling home in Redwood City, California. Her 11-year-old son, Leo, just home from school, must be met at the bus at the top of the driveway before coming indoors.
Once inside, Rosa immediately showed him the schedule of activities. First up: Bathroom, hand-washing, then a snack.
(Watch a video of Leo at home, here)
Working with an easy-to-understand schedule that usually includes picture icons is key for a smooth day for Leo and many autistic children. Experts say autistic children respond best to things they can see. Too often, things they hear or feel are off-putting and stimulate their senses in ways that can cause pain or irritation.
"Auditorily they have a difficult time processing something, it's sort of like someone speaking a different language to you," said Jennifer Sullivan, the executive director of the Morgan Autism Center, which is Leo's school. "So from the very beginning we would draw pictures of 'this is what you're schedule would look like for the day.'"
But after his snack, Leo's free time usually involves the family iPad. Rosa believes his instinctive draw toward visual learning is letting the iPad reach her son in ways no other therapy had done before. The iPad, she said, has changed Leo for the better, making him more independent. And she's quick to point out that he's still an 11-year-old boy who deserves to play sometimes, which he also does on the family's iPad.
The U.S.-based organization Autism Speaks estimates there are hundreds of apps built for use on iOS devices, specifically for autism. A search of the Apple iTunes store brought more than 580 autism-related apps, while an Android Market search for autism apps yielded about 250 results.
"The more we dig, the bigger the rabbit hole is and we're starting to think tech is a really big key for how we can develop therapies quickly," said Marc Sirkin, vice president of social marketing and online fundraising for Autism Speaks.
However, the organization is cautious about the iPad's popularity. Its quick ascent means no one has actually studied which apps are of therapeutic benefit. Sure, Sirkin said, parents may hear anecdotal stories of apps completely changing a child's life, but there is no measurable proof yet that the apps really work.