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iPads improve language skills in autistic kids

UCLA researchers are discovering that tablets and iPads can help autistic children learn to communicate
iPads may help kids with autism communicate 01:34

A third of autistic children still having difficulty speaking at age 5, even after years of early intervention. Five-year-old Lance Almeida has autism, and he has difficulty expressing himself as well remembering and using words. His parents say Lance only had about 10 words in his vocabulary -- until they enrolled him in a study that examined how using iPads may help autistic children better communicate.

Lance's mother, Mee Fung Almeida, told CBS News that access to the simple technology has helped his development "exponentially."

In the study of 61 children, aged 5 to 8, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles compared communication abilities of kids who did and did not have access to tablets. The children were all considered "minimally verbal," meaning they had a vocabulary of fewer than 20 words. All children enrolled in the study received speech therapy for six months. Researchers provided iPads to half of the children in the study.

Things parents should know about autism 04:23

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that the children using iPads doubled the number of words in their vocabulary, compared with those who did not use the device. These findings could help the estimated 1 in 68 American children with autism improve their ability to learn.

During the first three months at the start of the study, each child used the iPad during two sessions a week. Almost 80 percent of the children using the iPad along with speech therapy showed an improvement in language at that point, while only 62 percent of kids who received speech therapy alone improved their communication skills. However, children who started to use an iPad after the three month mark didn't have as high a success rate as the kids who began to use the device at the start of the study.

"If you entered the study with fewer than 20 words you maybe exited the study in 6 months with 100 words, which is quite significant," Dr. Connie Kasari, professor of human development and psychology and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles' Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, told CBS News.

Kasari, who helped to conduct the study, said children benefit because a tablet allows for repeated practice and the visual stimulants encourage verbal response. The device can also helps clarify words the child is struggling with and may even alleviate the pressure to communicate.

By the end of therapy, Lance was able to speak with more confidence and was comfortable using more words than before the study. His parents say their son now has approximately 100 words in his vocabulary.

Lance's mom believes the findings of the study will prove beneficial to others as well. Even though Lance's participation in the trial has come to an end, both parents still frequently return to UCLA to help train other moms and dads how to use tablets with their autistic children. "I hope if we can help out one parent that's out there, it's worth it," she said.

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