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iPhone applications can help the autistic
Updated 5/28/2009 1:50 AM ET
Leslie Clark and her husband have been trying to communicate with their autistic 7-year-old son, JW, for years, but until last month, the closest they got was rudimentary sign language.

He's "a little bit of a mini-genius," Clark says, but like many autistic children, JW doesn't speak at all.

Desperate to communicate with him, she considered buying a specialized device like the ones at his elementary school in Lincoln, Neb. But the text-to-speech machines are huge, heavy and expensive; a few go for $8,000 to $10,000.

Then a teacher told her about a new application that a researcher had developed for, of all things, the iPhone and iPod Touch. Clark drove to the local Best Buy and picked up a Touch, then downloaded the "app" from iTunes.

Total cost: about $500.

A month later, JW goes everywhere with the slick touch-screen mp3 player strapped to his arm. It lets him touch icons that voice basic comments or questions, such as, "I want Grandma's cookies" or "I'm angry — here's why." He uses his "talker" to communicate with everyone — including his service dog, Roscoe, who listens to voice commands through the tiny speakers.

It's a largely untold story of Apple's popular audio devices.

It is not known how many specialized apps are out there, but Apple touts a handful on iTunes, among them ones that help users do American Sign Language and others like Proloquo2Go, which helps JW speak.

The app also aids children and adults with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and Lou Gehrig's Disease, or ALS — even stroke patients who have lost the ability to speak, says its co-developer, Penn State doctoral student Samuel Sennott.

Using the iPhone and Touch allows developers to democratize a system that has relied on devices that were too expensive or difficult to customize, Sennott says. "I love people being able to get it at Best Buy," he says. "That's just a dream."

He also says that for an autistic child, the ability to whip out an iPhone and talk to friends brings "this very hard-to-quantify cool factor."

Sennott won't give out sales figures for the $149.99 app but says they're "extremely brisk."

Ronald Leaf, director of Autism Partnership, a private California-based agency, says he prefers to help autistic children such as JW learn how to navigate their world without gadgets. "If we could get children to talk without using technology, that would be our preference," he says.

Clark says the app has changed her son's life.

"He's actually communicating," she says. "It's nice to see what's going on in his head."

Among the revelations of the past month: She now knows JW's favorite restaurant. "I get to spend at least every other day at the Chinese buffet."

Posted 5/27/2009 8:39 PM ET
Updated 5/28/2009 1:50 AM ET
It speaks for him: JW Clark, 7, who has autism, uses an iPhone application called Proloquo2go as a communication tool.
By Josh Clark
It speaks for him: JW Clark, 7, who has autism, uses an iPhone application called Proloquo2go as a communication tool.