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Helping To Educate Autistic Children: There's An App For That

The iPad is increasingly becoming a top tool for educating autistic children. And one local nonprofit is helping families capitalize on this cutting-edge technology.

 

This holiday season, the iPad is most likely going to be on many wish lists.

But not everyone who gets an iPad will use it to play Angry Birds, iChat with their friends or download music. The touch-screen tablet, for which thousands of apps are available, is increasingly becoming a top communication tool for people with autism.

Apple first began offering the iPad in April 2010. In just a year and a half, the device has surpassed any other of its kind when it comes to communication and educational tools for autistic people, explained Karen Velocci of the Autism Cares Foundation.

The iPad is highly visual and customizable, making it both stimulating and comforting for an autistic student, said Velocci, who is the organization’s technology director.

And now the Autism Cares Foundation, a Richboro-based nonprofit, is helping parents and students capitalize on the benefits of this cutting-edge technology.

The organization just wrapped up its second session of iPad enrichment classes, which were open to any parent and child with autism. The free 90-minute classes were held twice a week for six weeks at Newtown Middle School.

“This is a lot more fun and visual than boring flashcards on a table,” Velocci said as she demonstrated some of the apps that are specifically made for special-needs children.

For example, it can be as simple as helping your child express his or her thoughts or emotions.  Some autistic children do not communicate verbally, Velocci explained, so fun and simple apps on the iPad can give them a voice.

One app has pictures that represent objects and emotions. An autistic child who does not talk can use the iPad to express what they are thinking or feeling.

Other apps are more complicated. If you’re trying to teach your child how to spell simple words like “dog” or “cat,” an iPad allows you to upload an image of your family pet. Instead of a generic photo, customized images often make it easier for the student to learn, Velocci explained, adding that voices can also be customized on the iPad.

The organization’s iPad enrichment classes help parents navigate through the thousands of apps to find which ones are useful for their child. It also offers a venue where basic questions can be answered and ideas can be shared with other parents.

“Parents say the iPad is great but they have no idea where to start. We’re sort of handholding them through it all,” said Velocci, whose 15-year-old son has autism.

The most recent session of iPad enrichment classes, which was the second time the organization offered the program, had 19 participants. Velocci utilized three classrooms and had five other trainers there to help her facilitate the classes.

Velocci said the “coolness factor” of the iPad can’t be underestimated. Alternatives to aid communication for autistic children are big, bulky and unidentifiable to other non-autistic students in school. 

Since getting the iPad, Velocci said her son “fits in and he’s learning how to use a device that everybody else uses.”

Mary Jaroszewski, a trainer who helps Velocci facilitate the classes, agreed. “This is a way to make someone with a disability feel included,” she said.

Frank Kuepper, co-founder and president of the Autism Cares Foundation, attended the enrichment classes with his son, Michael. He said the experience was “eye-opening.”

“The iPad and the visual stimulus is highly motivating to these children,” Kuepper said. Kuepper said the device offers age-appropriate opportunities for learning, entertainment and social networking. “What we’re trying to do is mimic what regular kids get to do and enjoy,” he said.

Velocci said anther iPad enrichment class will be offered by the Foundation in the spring. For more information, visit www.autismcaresfoundation.org or email kvelocci@autismcaresfoundation.org.

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