iPad holds promise for dealing with autismComputer developers at Apple didn’t design the iPad with autism in mind, but it seems like it, according to parents of children with the disorder.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Computer developers at Apple didn’t design the iPad with autism in mind, but it seems like it, according to parents of children with the disorder.
After hearing about how other autistic children had benefitted from iPads, Kendra Wiesemeyer purchased one for her 15-year-old son Elliot at the beginning of the school year.
Elliot has been using the touch-screen computer tablet for entertainment and to speak for him. It also is increasing his word recognition.
“We have a lot of hope in this technology for breaking through to these boys,” said Wiesemeyer. She hopes the iPad improves his language skills, behavior and enjoyment of leisure time.
When educators saw how Elliot responded to the iPad, the school district purchased devices for other students with intense autism.
They include Brandon Fellrath, a 13-year-old student at Hudson Middle School.
Brandon’s mother, Angie, also is optimistic about the potential for the iPad to improve her son’s social skills.
Through the Proloquo2Go application, students are able to touch a picture on the screen and have the iPad speak for them.
Brandon has a vocabulary of 1,000 words, but rarely uses them. Now he can touch a picture to express his wishes — for example, when he wants to order a cheeseburger from a fast-food restaurant.
“A tool like this will help him in those situations,” Fellrath said.
Autistic children are hyper-sensitive to sensory inputs, she explained. Having a conversation with someone is so stimulating that the child is unable to speak.
“They may know in their heads what they want to say, but are unable to get it out. So something like this (the iPad) is going to do the communicating. They are going to be able to express that using this basic tool,” Fellrath said.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders. It affects the brain areas controlling language, social interaction and abstract thought, and is characterized by a lack of response to other people and a limited ability or desire to communicate.
Families usually begin to notice their children’s communication problems around the age of 3.
“We definitely felt like one day there was something different,” said Fellrath, speaking for herself and husband Brady. “One day he just didn’t respond. We actually brought him in for hearing tests because we thought he had a hearing loss overnight. And he got clumsy overnight.”
Brandon had been using at least five words before becoming non-verbal.
Elliot never talked. “That was our key. He just never talked,” said Wiesemeyer.
Both boys have what is sometimes termed intense autism.
“Articulation is very difficult. Word retrieval is very difficult — especially when they are under stressful circumstances,” Wiesemeyer said. “They cannot hold a conversation with you. This is a low-incidence autism.”
Wiesemeyer and Fellrath met 10 years ago through the Wisconsin Early Autism Project, a home-based therapy program for children with the disorder.
“That kind of started our journey,” said Wiesemeyer.
“We’ve been very supportive of each other because we can understand each other and relate,” added Fellrath.
Brandon is in Melissa Blake’s special education classroom at the middle school.
Blake, a long-term substitute, said he uses the iPad on a daily basis for academic work, life skills learning and entertainment.
A visual scheduler application helps Brandon function more independently by telling him what he should being doing next through pictures and a recorded voice.
He is learning to identify signs at school and in the community through another application.
The academic programs help him with spelling, sequencing, sorting, counting money and answering questions.
“These programs work on various skills that will assist Brandon in his everyday life,” said Blake, a recent graduate of UW-Madison. She filled in for special education teacher Amy Clendenen while she was on maternity leave.
Blake will have a full-time job at a Hudson elementary school next fall.
Elliot Wiesemeyer is in Jim Schreiber’s special needs class at the high school. Educational assistant Paula Monical is the person he looks to for direction and his personal needs.
Elliot’s favorite use of the iPad is to look at books that include animation, music and text — and are often interactive.
For example, he can touch pictures that talk or add color to images in the book, which motivates him to read along with the story.
“What makes this exciting for Elliot’s future is that there are literally thousands of books available, so he will constantly have new materials to explore,” Schreiber said.
Another of Elliot’s favorite classroom activities is cooking. He uses the iPad’s Proloquo2Go application to communicate and follow recipes while he cooks.
“We can set this (iPad) down and he just goes to town,” Schreiber said. “Sometimes he doesn’t use it at all. It’s just comforting to have that language by him. He can be verbal, but this helps. Verbalization will start to come if you use this a lot.”
So far, Elliott’s use of the communication program is limited to relating what he wants,” Schreiber added.
“If he hits ‘banana’ on here, (he means) I want a banana, not, Do you want a banana? Or, Bananas are grown in South America. Or, They are tasty,” Schreiber said.
The goal is for Elliot to eventually use the iPad for a variety of communication — greeting peers, introducing himself or even expressing feelings.
There’s a picture of Elliot on his iPad’s home page. Touch it and an application with a voice and photos begins. A male voice says: “About me. I live in Hudson, Wis. I am 15 years old. This is my dad (a photo of Chris Wiesemeyer appears). This is my mom (Kendra’s photo appears)….”
His aunt Stacy and younger brother Henrik are also introduced.
Autism can be a gloomy subject for families caring for an autistic child. The autistic child needs constant supervision — and everyone is affected.
Brady Fellrath has chosen to be a stay-at-home dad to take care Brandon and Brandon’s two siblings – sister Jordyn and brother Joey. Angie has a demanding job as an IT business analysis for St. Jude Medical.
At the end of February, the Fellraths were going to take their first airline trip together. Brandon had a meltdown after they boarded the plane, however, and Brady had to take him off the plane.
Brady and Brandon then drove two days through 10 states to join the rest of the family.
“That’s just our life. It wasn’t anything different to us,” said Angie Fellrath, not looking for any sympathy.
But the story illustrates why the Fellraths and Wiesemeyers are encouraged about the potential for the iPad to increase Brandon’s and Elliot’s independence.
“Our goal is for them to be happy and as productive as possible,” Kendra Wiesemeyer said.