In the past year, ACT Today! has given 88 iPads to children with autism around the country. As part of the autism care and treatment nonprofit’s new Assisted Technology Program, tools like the iPad ensure that children on the autism spectrum will reach their highest potential. Executive Director Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson talks about why the iPads are changing the lives of these children and recommends some of her favorite apps.
“Our children are such visual learners, and many times concepts are very hard for them that are easy for other children,” says Alspaugh-Jackson. She is also a mother with a son on the autism spectrum. When she first became involved with ACT Today! six years ago, she found herself on a parallel journey with other families who were searching for various treatments for their children. “For a lot of families, their children will not get better because they’re not getting access to the proper care and treatment. Seeing that and realizing I could help them gave me a sense of gratitude of what I’ve been able to do for my son.” Alspaugh-Jackson recalls thinking, “If it’s very difficult for me, how difficult is it for a single mom with several children, sometimes more than one on the spectrum?”
Last year, two new members joined the board of directors of ACT Today! Eddie and Lisa Guardado had already raised $45,000 through their own foundation, and after seeing how much an iPad had helped their own daughter, they decided to give out $45,000 worth of iPads through ACT Today! Families who applied for assistive technology grants through the organization and received the iPads were soon seeing their children engage in something on a whole new level. “Keeping our children constantly engaged and learning is so important,” says Alspaugh-Jackson. “This is a great way to do that.”
Alspaugh-Jackson was able to witness first hand the reactions of two children in the Los Angeles area on both ends of the autism spectrum. Max, who has high-functioning autism, took to the iPad right away. He emails, makes movies, takes photographs, and where he was formerly having difficulty in social situations, the iPad has been a great conduit for social interaction. Alspaugh-Jackson relates what Max’s mother told her, “It’s become a real outlet for him and he has been able to make friends by showing them his iPad and the movies he’s making.”
Dustin was the opposite of Max. He has a severe form of autism and had just recently become verbal, though he was difficult to understand. Once he began to interact with his iPad, his therapist wrote a letter saying in the six years she has worked with Dustin she has never seen such gains. She now uses it as a tool to help him become more verbal and have wider interests.
Apps for children on the autism spectrum can be helpful in areas ranging from body language to language comprehension, from relaxation to voice output. Alspaugh-Jackson mentions a few of her personal favorites based on her experiences with her son, Wyatt. For children who do not make eye contact, there is an app called AutismExpress which shows facial expressions that correspond with emotions. Another app, the Calm Counter, shows a distressed face that exclaims, “I need a break!” It then counts down from 10, and the face grows calmer as it goes, ending with a happy face and a deep breath. Alspaugh-Jackson also loves the iDress app that gives children a weather forecast and a closet full of clothes that are appropriate for the weather. To help with learning in schools, there are math apps that make lessons extremely visual, and there is an app called Storytime, which is a wonderful reading tool for all children.
For Alspaugh-Jackson and her son, drawing apps such as Draw Free have perhaps proved most valuable. This app gives the user a paint palette and allows them to choose colors and draw with his or her fingers. For Wyatt, who loves to draw, this is the number one thing he uses when he has anxiety. Now he can sit quietly in places like church, which he could not do before.
As Alspaugh-Jackson says, “You don’t want to just babysit a child. You want to have them doing something interactive.” Her plan with the Assistive Technology Program is to eventually give iPads with some apps preloaded on them. For now, ACT Today! does give app recommendations to families who receive iPad grants. Each family receives an email with a link to an article that lists 10 revolutionary iPad apps to help children with autism. Alspaugh-Jackson also suggests picking up an apps for autism resource guide, which can be found on Amazon.com.