iPods as the Next-Generation Autism Aid

How apps designed to make all of our lives easier can be co-opted to help adults with autism thrive in the workplace.


The tasks required of Jeffrey by his minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant were not beyond his physical or mental capacities to complete -- he was responsible each day for emptying garbage cans, wiping down tables, sweeping, stocking condiments, and cleaning the bathrooms. But a case study published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation describes how, as a 21-year-old with autism, he required the near-constant supervision of a job coach to prompt him to rotate between his different duties and to help him remember the steps involved in each task.

As Steve Jobs himself said, by pushing past the initial complexities of a problem "you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions." In Jeffrey's case, the solution was Apple's iPod Touch, programmed by an occupational therapist to guide him through the day. The iPod contained specific instructions that Jeffrey could reference when he forgot what to do, and would alert him when it was time to switch to a different task. Within a week, the two were synched.

The job coach stepped back, and a year later Jeffrey continues to excel at his job. Having the iPod as an interactive reference allows him to function more or less independently, and to feel more at ease in the workplace. His manager noted that he no longer spins in circles while humming or stamps his feet in the corner -- disruptive behaviors that he used to turn to in order to relieve his anxiety and that had been causing management to second-guess their decision to hire him.

The iPod even reminds Jeffrey that it needs to be charged each night.

Despite the advantages they can bring to a workplace, from basic productivity to, in some cases, increased ability to focus on complex and repetitive tasks, the common characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), like difficulty communicating and functioning in social situations and a reliance on routine, can make even menial labor difficult for people with the disorder, who of all disability groups are least likely to attain and keep employment. Jeffrey's case shows that technology already developed and made accessible can provide part of the solution.

Tony Gentry, director of the Department of Occupational Therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been interested in how handheld computers can provide cognitive aid since the days of the black and white Palm Pilot. Back then, he was ahead of his time. Now, he is four years into a five-year study with VCU's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center of the iPod Touch as a form of vocational support for people with ASD. The case studies discussed here indicate that the results, when they're finally written up next year, will be overwhelmingly encouraging.

The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that employers make "reasonable accommodations" for adults with autism, specified as minor adjustments to the work environment that won't cause undue hardship to the employer. For Jeffrey, something as reasonable as an iPod, which costs $190 (a job coach in the state of Virginia is paid $50 per hour), turned him into a valuable asset. He didn't even need to download any special apps -- the clock and to-do list functions that come standard with the iPod, after minor adaptations were made by a trained occupational therapist, were all he needed.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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