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

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[Schneider: What we're gonna do now is the motor mapper.]

He invited Temple Grandin, the renowned professor of animal science and author of five books on autism, to have her brain scanned as his first subject.

[Attendant: Okay Temple, the noise is gonna start. You doing alright?

Grandin: I'm okay.]

Grandin has Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism, but she had trouble learning to speak.

Temple Grandin: My speech started coming in around, you know.. three, three and a half. A few stressed words at a time. Like I'd say "Bah" for ball.

To analyze Grandin's brain, Schneider used a new technique he developed called high definition fiber tracking, that reveals the interior wiring in fine detail.

Stahl: This is a normal brain?

Schneider: This is a normal brain.

First he showed us the fibers that make up the language circuit in a normal brain - a streamlined bundle with off ramps at the top. But what about in a brain with autism, like Temple Grandin's.

Stahl: You're gonna show us Temple's brain?

Schneider: Yes. We're going to show the inside of Temple's brain.

What I saw floored me.

Stahl: What did you think when you saw that? That is Temple-- that is that. That is that?

Schneider: That is this section and how it projects out.

Stahl: But that's dramatic.

Schneider: That's dramatic.

Schneider thinks this dramatic disorganization of the wiring may explain the language impairments seen in autism, but he won't know for sure until he scans more people. He hopes, among other things, that one day a brain scan will be able to diagnose autism early and tell parents if their child will ever speak.

Stahl: So he's affectionate.

Amanda Williams: He's very, very affectionate.

Meantime, parents like Amanda Williams - Nathan's mother, are latching onto the iPad. Marveling at how the device is opening windows into their children's minds...even if the windows are only open a crack.

Williams: I can't express to you enough, like, how amazing it is to watch him take his little finger and go like that in a controlled way. I think the thing that made us cry was when he flipped through it and then he saw the tiger. And he went, "Oh, I gotta go back," and went boom. And he looked at us with this smile on his face. And he's like, "I did it."

Stahl: And it's such a tiny little thing.

Williams: It's a tiny thing.

Stahl: But it's-- for him, it's huge, right?

Williams: It's huge. It's huge.

Stahl: Where do you see the iPad taking him? What's the next step and the next step?

Williams: We don't know what the future holds for him in terms of speech. We'd like to think and we still hope that one day speech will come in whatever form. But if it doesn't and if it's not perfect--

Stahl: This will be his voice.

Williams: --this will be his voice.

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