Touch-screen tablets help connect autistic kids with their families and world

Technology has led to significant breakthroughs for some children

Juan Pablo Hourcade (right), assistant professor at the University of Iowa's Department of Computer Science, works with
Juan Pablo Hourcade (right), assistant professor at the University of Iowa's Department of Computer Science, works with 12-year-old Blake Sievert of Cedar Rapids to solve a puzzle Tuesday, Feb. 14, at Four Oaks Smith Center campus in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Eager to get his hands on a fruit snack Monday afternoon, 9-year-old Ssekabembe Miner had a difficult decision to make.

“Which one is green?” asked speech and language pathologist Jaymie Elkins while holding an iPad with a split screen showing two colored circles, one green and one orange.

Miner, diagnosed with a severe form of autism, knew he had to choose wisely to get his reward. With his therapists looking on, he straightened his finger and reached for the screen.

“Good job,” said Elkins, who works with children like Miner at Iowa City’s Children’s Center for Therapy.

Thanks to iPads and digital tablets spreading touch-screen technology, parents, teachers and therapists of children with autism and other mental disabilities can turn something as simple as snack time into a teaching moment.

“The social skill applications are unbelievable,” Monica Ryan-Rausch said of tablets’ teaching capabilities. She’s holistic program manager for the autism program at Four Oaks in Cedar Rapids.

Through the use of uniquely designed software on digital tablets, autistic children who typically avoid social interaction are talking with their peers, expressing emotions, asking appropriate questions and — in some of the more severe cases — communicating effectively for the first time.

“For these kids, it’s something they’re most comfortable with — technology,” Ryan-Rausch said. “They are getting to have social interaction in a non-threatening manner. It’s not a direct conversation, so it’s much more comfortable for them.”

Research is abundant, showing the benefits of touch-screen tablet technology for children with autism spectrum disorders and other mental and communicative disabilities. Studies from advocacy organizations, research centers and universities — including the University of Iowa — have found the technology can improve social interactions for the children and enable adults to learn more about them.

With the technology becoming more affordable and mainstream, a rising number of parents of children with disabilities — along with their schools and therapy centers — are making iPads or similar tablets part of their every day. Iowa City’s Children’s Center for Therapy, for example, uses iPads to help communicate with its non-verbal children and develop social and organizational skills in other children.

A recent grant for $3,800 allowed the center to make six iPads available for rent.

“Some of our families with disabilities have strained resources, so we wanted them to be able to test it out and see that it’s helpful for their child specifically before they make that purchase,” said Leslie Huber, executive director.

University of Iowa associate professor Juan Pablo Hourcade began studying the benefits of touch-screen technology for children with autism years ago. He created software aimed at encouraging children to interact socially, using the devices.

Today, he is working with Four Oaks in Cedar Rapids and the Children’s Center for Therapy and Hoover Elementary School in Iowa City on creating software that will be free and compatible with multiple operating systems, including those from Apple and Microsoft.

Mary Kay Kusner of Iowa City said touch-screen devices have given her a window into her daughter’s mind. Anna Kusner, 12, was born with a genetic abnormality, and her greatest challenge is communication.

“As a mom, it’s like, ‘What’s going on inside your head, girlie?’ ” Kusner said.

Anna uses sign language and body language to express herself, but “the iPad has just been the coolest thing,” Kusner said.

Initially, Kusner said, the family wasn’t sure the device was making a difference. Before long, Anna surprised them. One day, while hanging out with her older brothers, Anna found the fart button on the iPad.

“Who knew the iPad had a fart button?” Kusner said. “But she knows how to get a laugh.”

Anna now uses the iPad to order at restaurants, and Kusner said she hopes the portable technology will continue to open doors for her daughter.

“It has given her a level of independence that she’s not had before,” Kusner said. “I hope it could maybe even open up employment opportunities for her that we weren’t sure were possible before.”


Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.