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.

The Gilberts began to notice that their son was drawn to their iPhone. The slick touch screen was easy for him to maneuver, and he would engage with the phone for hours -- something he didn’t do with any of his toys or books. There are still so many unanswered questions about the disease that when a parent finds out their child has autism, they quickly learn that they'll try anything once and hope it works. So the Gilberts concluded it must be the visual interaction that GAGE liked. Coming home from shopping one day, they saw that Gage had spelled the words “Toy Story Pixar” and “Crate & Barrel” using toys letters -- even creating letters from toy and block shapes. They knew he was smart, but even the iPhone experience didn’t shed much light on how they could get him to communicate with them.

Then, they were awarded an iPad after participating in an online program. After six weeks with the bigger device, Gage went from using single, highly prompted words to using language to communicate.

The Gilberts say the change has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Though they don’t think his improvement is attributable solely to the iPad, they believe it has played a huge part in helping Gage realize that words plus words equal sentences and thoughts -- which equal communication. At last, the Gilberts feel like they can connect with their child, becoming a part of his “little world.”

It has been life-changing. Just a couple weeks ago, Gail and Gordon Gilbert heard their son say “Mommy and Daddy” -- a milestone that parents with “typical” children (as the KIDS program at Gage’s school describes children without autism) take for granted. For the Gilbert family, this is huge. It means there is hope. Innovative technology has now given parents like the Gilberts an opportunity to communicate with their child -- for many, for the first time. Imagine what advances are to come.

The Gilberts' experience has inspired them to establish the Gage Rufus Foundation, an organization committed to helping other children with autism in Clark County increase their communication abilities and find their voices. Their mission is simple: to provide every autistic classroom in their school district with an iPad so that other parents can experience the joy they have. As Gage continues to improve, the Gilberts look forward to enrolling him in regular kindergarten, seeing him become an independent adult capable of achieving all that he wants and, eventually, even going to Yale. (Dad says it’s better.)

To find out more and to help the Gage Rufus Foundation, go to GageRufus.com.

(Watch "Gage speaks" at PJTV.)