Apps for Autism: Communicating on the iPad

Autistic people whose condition prevents them from speaking are making breakthroughs with the help of tablet computers and special applications that allow them to communicate

For severely autistic people, communication is often impossible, leaving them unable to convey what they want or need. But as Lesley Stahl reports, touch-screen apps designed for tablet computers like the iPad are now giving autistic people new ways to express themselves, some for the first time. Teachers and parents are hailing the technology as a breakthrough, one that can reveal the true depth of knowledge and emotion trapped behind a wall of silence.

The following script is from "Apps for Autism" which originally aired on Oct. 23, 2011 and was rebroadcast on July 15, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Karen Sughrue, producer.

After Steve Jobs died last year, there was an outpouring of gratitude from his fans for the way his inventions, like the iPad, changed their lives.

Among the most passionate are parents of children with severe forms of autism, especially those who can't speak and appear hopelessly locked inside themselves. Those parents often say these kids understand more and know more than they're able to communicate.

Well now, with the iPad and other tablet computers spreading through the autism community, some of those parents are finding out they were right.

As we first reported last October, it turns out that autistic children show a real interest in the iPad with its easy touch-and-swipe screens. With specially designed applications, or apps, these computers are helping them communicate and unlocking the isolation of people like 28-year-old Joshua Hood.

Imagine spending your life having conversations like this...

Lesley Stahl: P, L...

...having to poke out words on a laminated piece of paper - one letter at a time.

Stahl: C. Plastic.

It was so frustrating for Josh, his mother Nancy says he would often give up and retreat into himself. At family gatherings, he was sidelined because no one understood him. At school, he sat passively in class unable to participate. When Josh was feeling bad or really needed something, the family resorted to charades.

Nancy: So, you'd be like-- you know, can you spell it? Can you show me? And so, he would--

Stahl: You'd act it out almost?

Nancy: He would. He would-- he would look around a room and see if he could find somethin' that sounded like it.

Stahl: Just to tell you one little thing?

Nancy: One thing that he wanted, yes.

[Waitress: How are you?]

But not anymore.

[Josh, using iPad: I want a drink.]

For the past year, Josh has been using an Apple iPad as his voice and he is - well, he's reborn!

[Waitress: What are we havin' to eat today, Josh?

Josh: I want bagel bacon please.

Waitress: Ok.]

Now when he goes to the local diner, he can order his breakfast, himself. Josh's mom downloaded a special language app and added pictures, videos and symbols that allow him to convey his feelings.