"The challenge with iOS apps is a lot are developed by well-meaning parents but under no guidance with autism experts," Sirkin said. "For us, it brings in questions as an evidenced-based organization and we're starting to ask: Does any of this actually make any difference ... the danger is that the iPad becomes a really expensive toy."
But some parents are OK without the proof just yet. Eric Tanner, the father of an 8-year-old with autism, said what the iPad really offers is accessibility and hope that a better life is possible for his child.
"The reality is for people like us, it's a huge amount of hope," Tanner said.Tanner said the previous machine available for his daughter Sophia cost a couple thousand dollars and was programmable with only 20 keys to ask for specific things, like helping Sophia to say if she was hungry or thirsty. But it couldn't help her express emotions. Just a year later, Sophia's iPad is loaded up with a nearly $500 app built to help autistic children expand their vocabularies.
"It's a huge learning tool, it's massive," Tanner said. "It's really been one of the biggest things in her life so far."
Still, the iPad remains just one many tools to help Sophia, who has a full weekly schedule complete with equine therapy, floor therapy, speech and occupational therapy, to name a few.
Some app builders are coming to the process by seeing a need, themselves. Karen Head is a speech therapist from Boston. She and two colleagues often talked about writing a book to help their patients, but it wasn't until they hit on the idea of building an app that they started their business. Now, All4myChild's packaged app called "Social Adventures" has 44 activity descriptions, nine visual cartoons that are mostly focused on social interaction skills, and a new game coming out as a separate app on Monday.
"We wanted to have a platform we could continue to add to, so families and kids could grow with the app and we could make changes" Head said, pointing out that anyone able to invest about $10,000 can have an app ready for the marketplace within six months.
Which is exactly why Autism Speaks warns parents about finding salvation in apps.
And in some ways, Head agrees there is reason to be cautious.
"The dark side of all the bells and whistles is that in some cases it's too much, and kids get overly focused on things that jingle and jangle," Head said. "As a therapist, we want them to listen to us."
Sullivan seconds that idea, saying that even Leo, in particular, can get drawn to the patterns in an app rather than actually learning the content it is trying to provide.
"It's a little bit tricky because it's such a compelling medium for kids with autism, they want to do it intensely," Sullivan said.