Can the iPad Unlock Autism's Mysteries?

Gage Gilbert is a bright, 3 1/2-year-old boy with ocean blue eyes and golden blond hair. He loves reading books about science and enjoys singing songs with his Mom. His teacher says he’ll go to Harvard one day.

But right now, his parents' biggest wish for him is to go to a regular kindergarten class. That’s because a year and a half ago, Gage was diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder affecting 1 in 100 American children.

Gage is just one among a growing number of autistic kids. But as parents and researchers pursue the disorder’s ongoing mystery, his remarkable experience with the latest handheld technology may offer a fresh clue.

Imagine not being able to communicate with your child. Imagine feeling like he is trapped in “his own little world” -- one that only he understands. This is how Gail and Gordon Gilbert felt when, at 2-years-old, their son Gage began to have a hard time keeping eye contact, had difficulty communicating, and showed significant delays in fine and gross motor skills.

More common than juvenile diabetes, pediatric AIDS, and childhood cancer combined, autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders. Children diagnosed with ASD often experience difficulty communicating and socializing with others, growing agitated if they aren't able to adhere to a specific routine. Symptoms include a marked lack of eye contact, difficulty sharing feelings or empathy, and a tendency to repeat words or phrases, or obsess over specific routines.

For many parents of autistic children, the signs and symptoms that their children have autism go unrecognized. The Gilberts always noticed Gage’s poor eye contact. They even nicknamed him their “shifty-eyed little guy” -- but thought it was because he liked looking around. Plus, their oldest son Griffin, 5, didn’t start speaking until he was two years old, so they weren’t concerned when Gage wasn’t reaching the same milestones.

Though some research suggests there may be a genetic link, what causes autism is still unknown, and there is no known cure. Understanding autism is key to coping with the disorder.

Luckily, the Gilberts live in Henderson, NV, in Clark County -- one of the top three school districts in the U.S. for providing autism care and support.

Gage attends the KIDS program at Neil Twitchell Elementary, a unit of ECSE (Early Childhood Special Education). There, he gets support from trained autism therapists. In addition, the Gilberts were fortunate to find an aide that was willing to go to their home and provide Gage with applied behavioral analysis therapy (ABA) several times a week.

ABA therapy is an intensive teaching method that enables someone with autism to learn language, play, and social skills by influencing a response associated with a behavior. For example, a child with autism learns much less from the environment around them than a child without. They must learn how to do seemingly simple tasks like standing or sitting through associating the behavior with a response. ABA therapy uses a mixture of educational, behavioral, and psychological techniques to accomplish this.

For the Gilbert family, it was important for them to provide Gage with as many therapies and interventions as financially possible while also recognizing the importance of their other children’s needs. But the tool that had a dramatic, almost immediate impact on Gage came from an unexpected source: a cell phone.