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.
Once a job coach has programmed in the basics and helped them learn how to use it, the people presented in the case studies were able to function more
independently. People with autism tend to respond well to computers, in part because of their predictability. "Symbiosis between man and machine in that population is an
amazing opportunity for more focused and individual support," said Gentry. Such was the case with Lily, another young adult profiled by Gentry:
...[Lily] required direct verbal
support to stay on task, to switch tasks, and to know
which alternating schedule to follow each day. Because
Lily takes pride in her work skills, she often became
frustrated when her supervisor or job coach provided
these task cues, resorting to behaviors that included
throwing soft drinks, stomping, crying and phoning her
mother at home. Unforeseen changes in the workday
schedule also caused outbursts. These challenges made
independent job performance problematic.
Having her task cues delivered by an iPod instead of a supervisor allowed Lily to both feel and be more independent. This was emphasized by a two-week
period after she lost her iPod, during which she reverted to old behaviors and required an average of six hours a week of direct prompting from her job
coach. Once she got a new device, the job coached logged only two hours per week, most of which only involved indirect monitoring.
Other apps not specific to helping people with autism can also, with a bit of creativity, be repurposed. Storykit, for example, was used to create talking picture books for an illiterate
worker that could guide her through her tasks and provide positive reinforcement. Basic things like playing games during long commutes and listening to
podcasts as a calming strategy -- as many of us do -- took on a special significance for these individuals. What these case studies show is that while our
iPods and iPhones are capable of doing some pretty incredible things,
there may still be a lot that we're overlooking. It raises the question of what else is already at our disposal that can be re-imagined as a potential tool
for people with disabilities.