How devices like the iPad are helping special-needs children, hospital patients

When Makayla’s mom, Dee Yoakum, arrives to pick her up, she is surprised to see Makayla using the iPad so comfortably. “I didn’t know she knew how to use one,” Yoakum said.

While art instructor Diane Schwob Zubrick explains the many apps on an iPad that autistic children enjoy, Makayla moves on to use other programs, drawing neon-colored shapes onto a black screen and creating faces by selecting hair, eyes, noses and mouths from a series of choices. She is clearly enjoying herself and her mom is impressed.

“That’s awesome. I’ve never seen that before,” she said. “My husband just brought up the idea of an iPad, but this makes it more believable, to see it in use.”

If the Yoakums do decide to purchase an iPad, they’ll be part of a growing number of parents, teachers, doctors and therapists who have discovered the device’s many uses for people with disabilities. It may be a fun gadget for entertainment purposes, but it’s also having a surprisingly positive effect on the quality of life for many families.

iPad and autism

Shelli Mendel-Koeppl, president of the Dayton Chapter of the Autism Society of America, said the word is spreading fast about the usefulness of the iPad and the iPhone. “There’s a lot of buzz about the iPad in the autism community,” she said.

Mendel-Koeppl recently bought an iPad for the use of her two boys, Adam and Brendan, both of whom are on the autism spectrum and are high-functioning. “We’ve only had it a month or so, so I’ve only scratched the surface on how to use it. But I know other parents who have them and absolutely love them and say they are benefitting their children,” she said.

Like many autistic children, Mendel-Koeppl’s son Adam has difficulty keeping track of time. To help him understand when an amount of time — say an hour — will be ending, she can pull up an app on the iPad that displays a giant timer that helps to show him visually how much of the hour has passed and how much is left.

Other parents locally who have children with more severe symptoms have been using apps that help their children to communicate. A “tap to talk” app can help a non-verbal children express everything from what they want to eat to how they are feeling at the moment by tapping on a series of choices on screen that are then spoken by a computer voice.

“Even though they are non-verbal, they are very intelligent and this helps them to get out what they want to say,” Mendel-Koeppl said. “It helps so much. Many of our parents are finding their kids have fewer meltdowns.”

Programs that help autistic children to express feelings are particularly popular. Some are communicative, and give the user the option of picking a picture to show how he or she is feeling at that moment. Others are instructive, helping to teach what different emotions look like. “That’s helpful because kids with autism often can’t read facial cues,” Mendel-Koeppl said.

Lisa Flake-Houseworth, a consultant with Trumpet Behavioral Health in Dayton, uses many of these apps, but has also found that non-educational games are great motivators for her autistic clients. “Since a lot of autistic kids love to play games, we use it as reinforcement for good behavior,” she said. “If I’m trying to teach a child how to label a body part, once they do it correctly, they can play with the iPad for a minute.”

Some apps actually help teach parents how to cope. One by the Southwest Research Institute, called Behavior Breakthroughs, looks like a video game, and portrays an autistic child. As the child acts out, the player is given options for how to respond as the parent, whether it’s to take action, say something or ignore the child. Depending on the choices made, the child will either calm down or get more upset.

The iPad is not the first electronic gadget to provide some of these functions, such as presenting pictures that can illustrate feelings. However, some of the other gadgets can cost thousands of dollars and can often only be ordered through a doctor or an agency. “A lot of families have to write grants or do fundraisers to afford them,” Flake-Houseworth said.

The iPad has the advantage of versatility, with its ability to offer almost limitless interactive apps, games, books and music, with many downloadable programs free or in the one-dollar range.

The ease of use is also appealing. “They’re (my sons) better than me at it. They can figure out how to work anything electronically,” Mendel-Koeppl said.

“Kids in general love technology. It really helps to motivate them,” said Dr. Mary Beth DeWitt, a staff psychologist at Dayton Children’s who often works with autistic children. She hasn’t started using the iPad in her own practice but recommends it as a tool for the parents of children she treats. “It’s a first step to get them interested, especially because autistic children are often very visual. This is a great alternative to using flash cards.”

DeWitt knows of parents who have used the iPad to ease their child’s efforts at socialization, by displaying pictures of classmates for them to study and uploading pictures of pets to give their kids a conversation starter with others at school.

“There are so many ways it can be used and parents are amazing at figuring out new uses,” she said.

The Dayton Chapter of the Autism Society considers the iPad such a valuable therapeutic tool that it now offers grants to families for purchasing one, alongside grants for things like speech therapy and medical supplies.

It is also one of the items available to borrow from the product lending library managed by Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley, which loans assistive technology devices out — for free — to individuals with disabilities. “The iPad is the most popular item in our lending library,” said Kevin Leonard, assistive technology services coordinator. “It gives people a try-it-before-you-buy-it option.”

Leonard said the iPads are mostly being checked out to help those who have non-verbal autism.

“The only drawback we’ve had is truly its popularity,” he said.

Beyond autism

At Goodwill Easter Seals, Leonard sees potential for the iPad to help more than just the autistic community. “What we’re finding is the software is absolutely wonderful, not only for children, but also for seniors,” he said.

For individuals with physical disabilities, the lack of a keyboard also makes the device easier to use than a traditional computer. “I have a physical disability myself and I’ve found this is one of the few items I haven’t had to adapt,” Leonard said. “With the iPad, even though I have limited finger dexterity, all I have to do is use my thumb or one finger. Or, I just push a button and use a voice activation app. I can do searches on Google just by speaking to it.”

At Dayton Children’s, the Child Life Department is using an iPad both to educate and to entertain patients and their parents. Before obtaining an iPad, Child Life Specialist Kristy Rowe had to cart around a rather large bag of items. “I’d carry DVDs, a DVD player, CDs, a CD player, books and games and so on. This is so much easier and offers so much more,” she said.

Rowe uses an educational app to illustrate procedures before surgery. She’s found that the iPad images are easier for people to understand than what’s available in books and she likes that she can draw on it.

Opening up the world

Like any technology, there can be drawbacks. No device can be a complete substitute for human interaction and instruction.

“My biggest concern with technology is that people don’t know how to talk directly with each other anymore,” said DeWitt, the psychologist at Dayton Children’s. “But in the field of autism, the iPad is a means to help children connect with others.”

Mendel-Koeppl agreed, saying she’d recommend it for anyone with a disability. “It opens your world up,” she said.

Diane Schwob Zubrick, the art instructor at We Care Arts, witnesses that again and again, when she uses the iPad in art classes she teaches to special-needs students at Beavercreek High School and Baker Middle School in Fairborn.

On Saturday, Zubrick swiftly demonstrated numerous apps to Dee Yoakum, Mikayla’s mother, showing pianos on screen that can be played, fire engines that can be scooted down a cartoon street, and cats that can be petted or poked, prompting either meows or yowls. Her students with disabilities are using the iPad to learn music appreciation, hand-eye coordination and the social niceties of pet interactions.

“It’s just amazing that they can learn all this from electronics,” Zubrick said.

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