At times, Andy Shih still finds himself overwhelmed by the ground swell of interest in autism applications he has seen in the three years since Apple released the first iPad.
In his role as senior vice president for scientific affairs at Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization based in New York, Shih helped organize a "hacking autism" event in San Francisco with co-sponsor AT&T Inc. that drew 135 developers.
Even as researchers begin trying to determine how effective such technologies are, parents, therapists and developers are racing ahead in their attempts to tap into what they view as a powerful tool to reach people with autism.
While there also has been a surge in apps for devices running Google's Android operating system, researchers and families credit Apple's iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone for being the catalysts.
At the end of National Autism Awareness Month in April, a search for "autism" in Apple's App Store brought up 1,449 apps for the iPad and 1,259 for the iPhone. There's an app that simply describes and categorizes all the available autism-related apps. And Apple has even created a "Special Education" section of the App Store. (See box.)
The range of these apps has expanded well beyond the initial focus of helping people with autism communicate and improve social skills to learning about emotions and delivering basic educational lessons in a format that's better suited to autistic learners, Shih said.
The creators appear to be drawn by a mix of instincts to help others and the sense that there is potentially a sizable market for these apps since, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 50 school-aged children in the United States has been diagnosed with some form of autism.
Howard Shane, of the Autism Language Program at Children's Hospital Boston, said his experience with the iPad and autistic children has been overwhelmingly positive.
Shane said his group is working on a "feature matching process" to help families determine which apps are best suited to the needs of their children.
Bill Thompson, a school psychologist at the Orange County, Calif., Department of Education, who wrote some of the first autism apps, said he's trying to find ways to make their use more effective. Many educators and parents, for instance, like the iPad and other mobile gadgets simply because they can be used as a powerful reward to reinforce a desired behavior: Complete a task, get some iPad time.
That's understandable, considering that it often can be hard to find rewards that motivate some autistic children. But Thompson said he'd like more of the iPad time used for educational purposes, rather than just getting bonus Angry Birds time. For instance, Thompson has created a system in which a classroom with many kids on the autistic spectrum use iPads that can be beamed onto a large-screen TV using an Apple TV unit to enable them to communicate with each other in ways they might not otherwise.
As the number of apps has increased, so has the challenge of finding the most reliable ones. Lois Jean Brady, who wrote the book Apps For Autism, said she's also focused on helping families find the most effective apps as their numbers have multiplied. It can be a challenge because some app developers are tempted to tag their apps as autism-related, even if their real use is much more general.
One of the reasons Apple products are so popular with the special-needs community is because they all have "accessibility" settings built in. Under the "general settings" menu, there's a "guided access" option that can keep the device locked on just one app so the user doesn't switch, say, from a social lesson to a video game app.