Touched by an iPad: Tablet computer powerful tool for kids with special needsVideo Inside: See how the iPad is changing how young people learn
JAMESTOWN, N.D. – At 20 months old, something changed inside Cade Brademeyer. He turned from a bubbly, animated, cuddly child to a silent, withdrawn one.
JAMESTOWN, N.D. – At 20 months old, something changed inside Cade Brademeyer.
He turned from a bubbly, animated, cuddly child to a silent, withdrawn one. He began crawling under tables or chairs and spending long periods examining how they were built. He was fascinated by doors and would rather play with an extension cord than a toy.
After years of testing, Cade was diagnosed with autism and apraxia (a lack of motor planning) at age 5.
“This is how we describe it: We lost our child to autism at about 20 months, and we have been trying to get him back ever since,” says his mother, Missy Brademeyer.
Now one technological tool may help bring Cade a little closer to home.
About eight months ago, Mark Coppin, assistive technology director at the Anne Carlsen Center in Jamestown, encouraged the Brademeyers to buy Cade an iPad. He told the Fort Ransom, N.D., couple that some children with disabilities were successfully using the popular tablet computer to communicate and learn.
Cade, now 11, had already tried other communication devices but didn’t really take to them. That changed when he got his hands on an iPad. In no time, Cade was scrolling through the touch-responsive screen’s digital pages, clicking on apps (pre-programmed applications) and playing games.
These days, he uses a program called Proloquo2Go to communicate. Proloquo2Go allows users to select images representing words, which the iPad will speak for them. Cade uses it to augment his vocabulary of five to six spoken words plus sign language.
Since he got the device, “Cade has definitely become more communicative and is independently trying to say new words that he was previously only signing,” says Mary Lewis, special education teacher at the Anne Carlsen Center, which educates children with special needs.
Now his teachers guide him through iPad apps to work on spelling, language and social skills.
And at home, his parents use special apps to prepare him for new experiences or to reinforce good behavior.
Missy and husband Jay view the device almost like a seeing-eye dog: The iPad helps him function in day-to-day life and is not intended as a play thing.
Since Cade began using the tablet last fall, he seems calmer and more motivated to learn, Missy says.
“He will opt to do things on the iPad over paper and pencil,” Missy says. “He can’t hold the pencil correctly to do what he needs to do. (The iPad) just catches his attention.”
He’s also less likely to show undesirable behaviors. Before Cade got his iPad, family trips with him were chaotic, Missy says. Cade would act up if his parents didn’t drive where he anticipated. (People with autism often become anxious if their routine is interrupted.)
“He has an internal GPS system,” Missy says, “so we would see a lot of behaviors in the car, especially if we’re not going in the direction he thinks we should go. But now that we can download movies on the iPad, it’s just been fantastic. It makes it very peaceful and enjoyable.”
The iPad also helps close the gap between Cade and other kids his age. When he began attending a science class at public school here, “the kids thought he was pretty cool,” Lewis says. “Not many fourth-graders have iPads or get to take them to school. It was a big help with peer acceptance.”
A valuable teaching tool
Cade is just one of a growing number of people with autism who are benefitting from the iPad.
“It’s a voice,” Missy says of the device. “It’s their voice, and it’s affordable to the point that many kids have the capability of having it.”
Autism, which is defined by a certain set of behaviors, is a “spectrum disorder,” meaning it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, according to The Autism Society.
But in general, people in the spectrum have some degree of communication deficits, trouble with social interaction and repetitive behaviors, according to the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.
Apple didn’t develop the iPad with a special-needs population in mind – and the company has been fairly hush-hush about promoting it as such.
Still, the tablet’s intuitive design, quick learning curve, versatility and portability have made it appealing to children with autism and the people who teach them.
“I have never seen a device, in such a short period of time, have such an impact on education,” says Coppin, the Anne Carlsen technology expert who now travels around the country speaking about the iPad’s educational potential.
Assistive communication devices have been around for years, but they can be bulky and cost as much as $15,000. “Most communication devices take someone with a lot of experience and technical skill to manipulate and program,” Lewis says.
In contrast, the iPad starts at $500, is easy to master and weighs 1½ pounds.
Children with autism tend to respond better to images than to words, and the iPad offers the right mix of visual and audio cues, Lewis says.
Since people have discovered its potential as a teaching tool, developers have created dozens of apps geared toward the autistic child. About 30 percent of the apps are free; others vary from $1 to $9. (The most expensive is probably ProLoquo2Go, which costs $189.)
Some apps visually guide children through scenarios – such as a trip to the hairdresser – so they know how to act and what to expect. Yet another teaches them to establish eye contact, practice turn-taking or hold conversations – behaviors that can be hard for those in the spectrum.
Sharon Olson, a teacher at Anne Carlsen, says she knows her students are retaining new information because they will “generalize” what they’ve learned from the iPad outside of the classroom.
“They’re having fun while they’re learning, and they’re engaged,” Olson says. “And they can be independent. That’s huge for our kids. It’s something they can do. And they’re successful with it right away.”
Doesn’t work for all
Still, the iPad isn’t for everyone. The screen is too touch-sensitive for some people with limited motor control, Anne Carlsen educators say. Its battery life is relatively short. And, unlike assistive communication devices, insurance companies won’t pay for it.
Skeptics still view it as a toy whose usefulness is unsubstantiated by scientific data, Coppin says.
And its reputation as a “miracle device” has actually caused a backlash.
“There’s this tendency to think it’s going to solve everything,” Coppin says. “The biggest problem we’re having right now is that they are just being thrown out there without that process of looking at the student first.”
In order to be effective, the iPad needs to be used in a structured setting with an individual student’s goals in mind, Coppin says.
“It’s still going to come down to teaching practices, good sound classroom practices, differentiated instructions – all those types of things,” he says.
And not all kids with special needs respond to it, Coppin says.
Cade’s parents are optimistic about his progress but know he’s a long way from texting to speech. Even so, Missy says the tablet has allowed her son to find healthier ways to express himself.
In the past, when Cade couldn’t communicate something, he screamed and bit his hand in frustration. Missy recalls him doing so one day in the car, while she tried to decipher what was bothering him. Finally, she asked him to take out his iPad and tell her what was wrong. Cade hit the button that read: “You don’t understand me.”
By indicating that phrase, Missy knew she needed to pull over the car and find out exactly what her son wanted. For a parent who often struggles to understand what her son is thinking, it was a breakthrough.
“I just get giddy over it,” Missy says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525