Not too long ago, an autism diagnosis was seen as a door tightly shut on a world that communicated differently. Today, people with autism have a powerful key to unlock that door — thousands of apps to help them communicate.

More than a trend in the billion-dollar app industry, the increase signals a significant step toward integrating more people with autism into the mainstream, experts say.

“It’s really been a game changer,” said Robin Parker, Ph.D., a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Abraham Fischler School of Education in Fort Lauderdale. Parker, who specializes in speech, language and communication, uses the apps to facilitate her work with children. She has seen tremendous improvement in children’s communications and behavioral skills, including having children learn to speak.

“These apps are clearly helping our kids and adults do what everyone else is doing,” said Parker, who is also consulting director at the University of Miami-NSU Center for Autism Related Disabilities (CARD).

Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by difficulty communicating and socializing as well as repetitive behaviors. It encompasses a broad spectrum, from severe to milder forms like Asperger’s syndrome.

Why do apps work?

Parker said touch technology is geared more toward how people with autism process information.

“It’s good universal design that helps people with or without disabilities,” she said.

In February, Temple Grandin, the iconic autism advocate and doctor of animal science who is autistic herself, delivered a lecture, “Different Kinds of Minds” at the University of Miami. She mentioned not only the benefits of IPad technology for people with autism, but with characteristic candor, added some irony and insight about its creator.

“What is autism?” she said. “It’s a developmental disorder, and on one end of the spectrum you’ve got Steve Jobs and Einstein. Einstein had no language until age 3. Steve Jobs was a weird loner who brought snakes to his elementary school and was bullied and teased and had all kinds of problems”

Parker said the development of autism apps is revolutionary in teaching people who process information differently.

“Before we taught only one way. We were effectively excluding and segregating people. With these technologies we are truly making our society more inclusive,” said Parker.

For those who could not speak, big bulky devices designed to help people communicate cost thousands of dollars. The cost of apps ranges from free to about $300. While some people may still need the large devices, most can benefit from the apps, Parker said. She suggests going to the Appy Mall (www.appymall.com), an online resource for finding free and discounted apps and which has a section devoted to autism.

The proliferation of autism apps is a response to the growing number of children and adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Last month, a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in 50 children is affected by autism. The numbers represent a 72 percent increase from a 2007 CDC report. In the new study, the CDC said the increase was based on parents’ reports of increased diagnoses of milder forms of autism, including Asperger syndrome.