The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘communication

iLove the iPad (and always will)

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Courtesy Tim McCarthy, Asbury Park Press

Alesha Williams Boyd of the Asbury Park Press is the latest reporter to uncover the autism community’s love affair with Apple’s iPad computers. Several New Jersey school districts are purchasing iPads for special needs students for the upcoming 2011-12 school year, with a private school requiring families of students to purchase the mobile computers.

The mobility, aesthetics and the ability to install apps to personalize each system are a few reasons why iPads are such a hit for the mentally disabled community. The director of special services at New Jersey’s Marlboro Public School district credits Apple’s product for drawing autistic kids out from themselves. The iPad’s ability to provide a means of communication via screen images for autistic children is well-documented, but thanks to the app market, school districts are also using iPads to encourage autistic people to make eye contact. Even if such applications have a price tag (according to the article, some cost as much as $200), many still consider the iPad a marvel with its $500 list price compared to bulkier, bigger, more complicated devices that can reach four figures.

What about students with other disabilities? Boyd covers that segment in the first few paragraphs, reporting applications allowing students to organize their activities, thoughts and assignments (a boon for autistic children who adhere to routine), and apps that can vocalize text or translate the spoken word into text. Not enough? Settings on some apps can be adjusted to the type of touch students produce, and can also be rigged to challenge students to exercise their motor skills with different forms of touch.

I doubt this will be the last time iPad and autism blend in the same article, but future media coverage could become stagnant if future versions of the iPad aren’t considered revolutionary for the disabled population. Coupled with similar abilities from the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple’s sister products, stories on the benefits of these devices will find difficulty creating new flavors for an audience that follows autism news via the Internet, where geographical boundaries are neutralized. However, the primary reason for future media coverage that could repeat itself is all about the audience. Similar stories to find a place on this blog originated from Houston and the Twin Cities area, so to assume New Jersey residents would know of those stories would be unwise. While this means using a search engine for stories on autism may produce carbon-copies published in different outlets, local organizations aren’t worried about similar coverage outside their market.

However, Boyd does show her readers the iPad’s potential outside of the autism community, where most media coverage in this topic is focused. Truthfully, the advantages of the iPad aren’t any major revelation these days, but Boyd does answer the call for communities who may feel overshadowed by autism coverage. Examining the benefits is useful beyond informing the audience for Apple’s sake. Since Apple releases new editions of their products on an annual basis, viewing its impact across multiple facets may assist them with improvements for future editions through app technology or hardware components.

I had to learn to communicate through more traditional computers since touch-based technology was far from wide use growing up. I can’t say I’m more or less fluent with computers than autistic kids who use iPads are, but I can predict school districts will eventually saturate their special-needs students with iPads when budgets and resources allow for the opportunity, and you can bet I’ll follow the news coverage generated from the implementation.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Autism could be a protein problem

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San Diego (and myself) was an autism spotlight for the last week, with the University of California-San Diego publishing two studies regarding the disability. Their most recent was featured in the Journal of Biological Chemistry September issue, and found that misfolding of a certain protein, caused by gene mutations, results in deficiencies that can lead to abnormal communications between neurons. Genetic misfoldings prevent normal formation of neuronic synapses and has been noted in autistic people. Genetic mutations in autistic people were discovered just seven years ago, but could increasing understanding behind what causes autism and what influences the disability most, a good question with talk of environmental vs. genetic factors behind autism spectrum disorder. Discovering these mutations can also offer new targets for therapies.

The topic itself is very complex and difficult to apply in current situations with the general public. Further complicating these stories is a lack of knowledge of genetics within part of the autism community. The only recent story I can recall that was published by a mainstream news organization was ABC, when they reported a story suggesting that genes of an autistic person are dormant, compared to missing genes in people with other disabilities. The article’s link originated from UCSD’s own health department website, and I can’t see much syndication beyond their school newspaper. However, that’s no reason to discredit what colleges are doing to further the quest for knowledge. Whether it’s medical, genetic, or another form of science, college employees and researches often advance projects that reveal answers the rest of us may not have time to find.

Scientific studies may not be visually compelling or easy to comprehend at first, but because they reveal clues to understanding a rapidly prevalent mental disability, they will often serve a behind-the-scenes role in stories that traditional news organizations decide to pursue, including UCSD’s own study of autistic toddlers preferring to gaze at geometric shapes instead of people.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 12, 2010 at 6:51 pm

An “apple” a day keeps autism away

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If only autism were that simple to solve. Probing the mind of Apple owner Steve Jobs may be next to impossible for us non-celebrities, but he certainly found a way to attract a group whose minds are also difficult to comprehend. Several news outlets are carrying a story originally from Houston about the iPad assisting autistic children in communication (the link takes you to CBS4’s version). Specifically, parents who purchase an iPad can store pictures or other visual cues while their child taps or scrolls to point out his/her needs. While not documented for this story, I’m certain the benefits go beyond autistic people who don’t communicate orally. Whatever the benefits, autism experts believe the iPad is the next step in filling gaps autistic people have that other don’t.

This isn’t the first time Apple and autism have tangoed in the news together, as an autism center in the Twin Cities implemented iPods last year. Other stories have focused on the iPhone, which some joke is an iPad nano that makes phone calls. Evidence is mounting to support Apple’s surprising benefits for autistic people, regardless of what device is used.

I did scope the other versions of this story online, as some news stations will employ the technique of video news releases (VNR’s).  A VNR is essentially an advertisement or pitch created by a company that looks like a news story and is presented as such during a newscast, but the subjective nature can be detected easily by watchful eyes. A case could be made that I’m discussing a VNR, since the same story has appeared in three websites and highlights the iPad, Apple’s latest foray in the netbook PC market (yes, Apples are technically PCs). However, the iPad has no rival at this point, and previous articles have focused on the relationship between Apple and autistic people. On top of that, no computer company is specifically targeting the autistic demographic simply because there’s little financial stability in that group, rendering any marketing ploy ineffective. The more likely scenario is  was one station ran the story, other news outlets saw it, and decided to use the story themselves. Borrowing stories, especially from a major network’s local affiliates, is also common in television news.

There’s a common thread among all the Apple devices I mentioned that I believe is the reason their products are gold mines for families affected by autism: they’re all touch-based. Apple released the iPod Touch around the same time as the iPhone, and the iPad is nearly an identical alternate form of its predecessors. The touch-base technology allows anyone to navigate apps, software, images, just about anything, with a lower learning curve compared to standard computers. While assuming that only Apple products can help autistic people would be foolish (I’ve used Windows PCs for all my blog entries on this site), its storage and navigation techniques are intuitive, especially for non-verbals. They still may not speak, but the ability to communicate through alternate forms is increasingly easier.

Apple is known for updating its products annually and introducing new devices quickly, with a captive audience of techies and journalists who will scoop up almost any Apple lead. However, when the next product is released, there’s a good chance more news stories will be published about its unseen advantages for the autism community. One of my technology friends noted its power in uniting communities, and Apple is definitely showing strides for at least one of them.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 11, 2010 at 9:01 am

Software does all the talking for autistics

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Even if you’ve only followed autism in the headlines for a short time, you’ve likely discovered that a good percentage of autistic people are non-verbal, meaning they don’t communicate through spoken word.

Some do nothing, some dwell on what could have caused a child to become truly speechless, but one British father decided to create a software program to help his son communicate. Speaks4Me is compatible with Windows from XP onward, and plans are underway to sell a software-only platform and a version for gaming consoles and mobile devices. As of now, Speaks4Me is only available through a touch-screen media player. The program works by dragging and dropping images from one area of the screen to another. When a sentence is complete, the user presses “verbalize” to have the computer program audibly repeat what the user wants to say. Stephen Lodge, designer of the software, believes the program would also benefit stroke survivors who can no longer speak.

The fact that Speaks4Me could benefit several communities of disability makes the story noteworthy. There’s also a secondary message of how addressing issues of a disability versus gloating about them can lead to real changes in the way people handle those who fall outside the neurotypical realm. The article also highlights a rare connection between autism and technology. Often, technology is mentioned only when vaccinations are included in the article’s storylines (and that’s a stretch in terms of defining technology). However, the last instance of technology relating to autism on this blog wasn’t that long ago, when I discussed how movie theaters were offering autism-friendly screenings.

Speaking of screens, this program stands to have a very good chance of success because of the visual nature of the program. Verbal or not, autistic people are often visual learners. They enjoy repetitive tasks because they’ve observed and memorized them. They use visual images to understand messages because it requires little or no interpretation (live sports coverage is a sightly heaven if there’s an interest in athletics). Users can quickly associate images with words or phrases on Speaks4Me, which also could spark a creative surge beyond using a computer to speak.

The United Kingdom will remain a fruitful source for autism stories, but don’t be surprised if you see a report or two on this software pop up in the states, especially if the software itself can be sold for installation on our home computers. If successful, expect at least a possibility of a cross-platform version for Mac compatibility. In the whirlwind of autism, technology will constantly remain a bright spot, offering hope that otherwise may not exist.

Written by TheSportsBrain

May 10, 2010 at 8:20 pm

iPod + iLessons

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Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

Courtesy David Joles, Star Tribune

OK, so Apple hasn’t developed an educational technology with that name, but that didn’t stop Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis from experimenting with iPods.

Located near the U of M campus, the staff didn’t go on a music binge. They purchased iPods for people who are part of the Asperger’s treatment program. Asperger’s Syndrome is on the autism spectrum, which means these kids often have the same difficulties as people who are more severely affected. The difference between classic autism and Asperger’s is intellectual abilities. Classic autistics often lag behind their neurotypical peers in terms of speech and communication development. Asperger’s kids equal and sometimes surpass their peers, but retain difficulties in social awareness, making integration sometimes more challenging.

Fraser created video lessons to help rectify that problem. Participants can download them into their iPods and watch them as much as they want at any time. The idea surfaced when the Fraser staff noticed Asperger’s students already used iPods as a calming device from other distractions.

One advantage highlighted in the article is the program’s inconspicuous nature. The rest of us likely won’t guess that a teen or anyone else on the spectrum will pull out their iPod to watch a video on the intricacies of interaction.

Ironically, I’ve never owned an iPod because its use as a calming force almost works too well. iPods are a prime target for thieves because listeners won’t hear anything suspicious, especially if an owner wears its distinctive ear buds. But that doesn’t mean this idea should be abandoned. Fraser’s iPod project is just one example of how new media can influence society as a whole in ways we may not consider on a daily basis.

Also ironic is that I did a story on Fraser, although it was more a profile piece, and the people I talked to wouldn’t let me near anyone who was enrolled in their services. Perhaps my approach or my medium (this was for my TV news reporting class at the U of M) affected their thoughts.  There is HEPA, designed to protect the privacy of people’s medical records. In other words, there’s a rulebook. However, like anything else that involves media, there’s the giant grey area of how those rules are interpreted. Some are strict, some are loose, and sometimes two people will carry vastly different definitions after reading the same book. I doubt I would have come across this specific story, but when I chose to pursue a story on Fraser last fall, my goal was to produce something similar to what Maura Lerner did for the Star Tribune. Lerner’s article shows what can happen when you give people an opportunity to do a story their way.

At least Fraser is willing to open up.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 26, 2009 at 6:56 pm