Our feature this week, in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, is written by Pamela Sloane-Bradbury of Extra Special Kids. Pamela writes books for children with autism, and her first title was recently released on the iPad. She shares her story about how the iPad has opened doors with her son Oscar, lending real world perspectives on how interactive media is being used as a communication and learning tool in the home.
Parents of children on the autism spectrum seem to moonlight as researchers. Whether it’s actively seeking out the latest theories on spectrum disorders and treatments, or passively browsing an autism-themed Twitter feed, we are there.
So, it doesn’t surprise me that ASD parents seem to be among the earliest adopters who use the iPad as a learning tool. The mainstream charms of the iPad are obvious, but the uses for children with autism are potentially limitless and growing every day.
When I first wrote my autism book series, I had planned on going the traditional publishing route, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the greater impact my books could have if given the freedom to move beyond the page and onto the iPad.
The iPad’s greater interactivity helps kids identify with characters better than static pages – for example, Zanny, the main character in my app book Zanny – Born to Run, was modeled on our son Oscar, who recognizes himself in the way that Zanny frantically runs around the page, throws food and leaves his buttons undone.
The ability to physically touch Zanny and make him move personalizes the experience for Oscar. By interacting with the pages, he enjoys the story more, has a positive association with the character, and perhaps his understanding of the story’s message of neurodiversity and acceptance is deepened. I don’t think I could have accomplished this as well if the book were only in print.
As you know, our children learn best visually. The iPad gives us the unique ability to reach them in several different ways at once, which greatly reinforces what we are trying to teach them. In a way, the iPad is a portal to a more “3-D” learning experience.
For my son, remembering the alphabet wasn’t a difficult task. Like many kids on the spectrum, he has the memory of an FBI profiler. Truly learning the alphabet, however, was a completely different thing. Like many kids with language problems and an auditory processing delay, he was having trouble distinguishing some of the sounds from each other and had a hard time pairing capital letters with their lower case counterparts.
Frustrated kids don’t usually enjoy practicing something they haven’t mastered yet, but with the iPad, I was able to get him to practice the alphabet without him even realizing it. He was able to trace the letters while hearing the sounds they make, then he could see the letters used in the context of a word coupled with a picture of that word, and then–in an instant—he is listening to the alphabet song! Can my old flashcards do that?
The 3-D learning approach means that he is not only understanding the alphabet better, he is learning valuable pre-reading skills, grouping items by type, practicing fine motor technique though tracing and improving his speech when he repeats the sounds out loud. It’s like killing five birds with one stone. The best part about it? He’s having a blast and it doesn’t involve the television. Even when he’s tuning out, he’s really plugging in.
Slowly, we’ve been replacing all of our old gear with iPad apps that serve that function. My lamination machine sits in the back of my closet, because we now use an app for our activity charts at home. It saves me the time I’d spend searching for a specific photo I need and the hassle of preparing for it for the velcro wall. Plus, my little guy likes to choose his pictures and slide them over to the chart himself, because it’s fun and he feels more independent.
Whether you want to reinforce skills learned with your child’s OT and SLP therapists, or proactively take your kid’s academic education into your own hands, the iPad has become an invaluable training and therapy tool, especially for parents who may live in places that don’t have access to the latest and greatest techniques. It’s not a panacea, but it enables us to cherry-pick from the vast selection of autism apps and choose the ones that address the symptoms we’d like to work on.
Even if you aren’t using therapy or learning applications, your ASD child can still benefit from the iPad in a way that typical kids might not. My son has auditory sensory issues and becomes overstimulated and overwhelmed easily. Now, when we know we’re going to be somewhere crowded like a restaurant or an airplane, we pack the iPad and a set of headphones so he can focus on something he likes and filter out the noise. That’s what’s great about it being so portable and light.
The thing I love most about using the iPad with Oscar is the fact that we’re using it together. It’s become “our” thing, and nice way of interacting in a positive way, when so much of his day involves discipline and structure. We can let loose and giggle and he can learn something at the same time…and it all fits in my handbag.