First study shows promise for tablets to become key teaching tools for autism

Tablet computers with special apps are unlocking the brains of autistic children, allowing them to communicate things their parents never knew about them - Watch "60 Minutes," Sunday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. ET/PT

Ten-year-old Nuno Timoteo, an autistic child who does not speak, was thought to have the intelligence and attention span of a two-year-old until teachers put an iPad in his hands and learned he loved opera and classical music. Joshua Hood, 27, also non-verbal and autistic, was thought to understand much of his world, but his lack of speech frustrated him and all around him until he began communicating freely with a touch-screen tablet computer.

Nuno, Joshua and others whose autism prevents normal speech have made these breakthroughs with the help of tablet computers and special applications that allow them to communicate, some for the first time. Lesley Stahl reports on this new tool for understanding autism for a "60 Minutes" segment to be broadcast on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Ian Stuart, a special education teacher at the Beverley School in Toronto, works with Nuno and participated in a University of Toronto study to determine how effective the tablet computers can be with autistic students. He believes the touch-screen technology is fast becoming a crucial tool. He used a vocabulary app on the iPad to prompt Nuno with images that Stuart soon learned to his surprise the child knew by name: he could point to the soldier, the saxophone and wind chime when prompted by the words for them. Stuart says he "had no idea to the extent of his vocabulary." But Nuno was even smarter than that. Shown a group of images with an apple and a few sweet treats and asked to point to the healthy snack, the child picked the apple.

Stuart says not every student takes to the device, but for others like Nuno, it's almost a miracle. "Not all of them are going to be engaged by it the same way, but the ones who are engaged by it, it's really...amazing," he tells Stahl.

Another Beverley teacher, Sabrina Morey, says teachers sense there is more going on in their autistic students minds than they are able to communicate. "[Tablet computers] are giving us a tool to really prove that there is more happening."

There was never a doubt that Hood knew many things, but his non-verbal manner made him dependent on others, who often did not know what he wanted or was thinking. With an iPad in his hands and the right applications, Stahl watches him order food in a restaurant, tell him his feelings toward his brother, or say he's happy to be featured on "60 Minutes." Says his mother, Nancy Hood, "The day he started using [the iPad], it blew me away...I wouldn't have known he preferred Coke to Pepsi. He's part of the community...communication is the essence of being human and here he is communicating fully now," she tells Stahl.

Stahl's story also features an interview with a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist who is delving into the mystery of why more than 30 percent of autistic people cannot speak.