Tablet opens world for autistic teen

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Having autism is kind of like being in a foreign country and not speaking the language, but one parent has found that an iPad can help bridge the communication gap.
Jennifer Dobbs hopes that www.thepuzzlingpiece.com can provide an iPad that son Tyler can use at home, after seeing a benefit from using one in Carroll County Public Schools.
The website was created by Melissa Winter, a mother of an autistic child who wanted to raise and funds to help children and families affected by autism.
The website will give an iPad to a family with a child affected by autism, if 60 qualifying “puzzling pieces” are sold in that person’s name. The items for sale are necklaces, key chains, T-shirts and more.
Some have described autism as “thinking in pictures,” and an iPad can provide “tons of visuals” for Tyler to work with, Dobbs told The Gazette in an e-mail.

More than that, an iPad can provide Tyler with a way to communicate with others, especially things like emotions, distress and pain, Dobbs explained. The device can provide a tool for Tyler to express himself and a tool for others to communicate ideas to him that he might not otherwise be able to understand.
“Right now, Tyler can use words to ask for things like foods or a favorite toy,” Dobbs said. “But where his lack of speech is a huge problem is communicating more abstract ideas, like pain or sickness. Most people with autism don’t understand nonverbal cues like pointing.”
Unlike other babies with an ear infection, Tyler never pulled on his to indicate a problem.
“At 15, he still has no way to make us understand what’s wrong when he’s in distress,” Dobbs said.
People without other ways to communicate could show “aggressive or self-injurious behavior” to indicate a problem. “So if Tyler has a headache, he might suddenly start hitting himself in the head with his fists. He’s a big, strong boy, and he has left bruises on his own face and body.”
It’s heartbreaking to be unable to help because of the communication barrier, Dobbs said.
“There's only one thing worse — wondering what will happen to him when his parents are no longer around to care for him,” Dobbs said.
She has learned to recognize some behaviors and make an educated guess about whether it’s a headache or something else. “But I’m not going to be around forever.”
Using pictures helps Tyler communicate, and that’s one method that has been used to organize his day. “Showing him a picture has greatly helped him understand what’s going on around him and feel less anxiety,” Dobbs said.
Tyler has used a notebook with picture cards velcroed in to show what he wants, like by pulling the card for food to indicate he’s hungry.
“Tyler has a critical need for a communication device,” Dobbs said. “It’s my sincere hope that the iPad can be that device.”
The tablet has thousands of applications available for autism and communication, she said.
“There are several great things about an iPad in this role. Almost limitless and instant access to photos and visual organizers is one,” Dobbs explained. “The portability of the iPad and the touch screen capability are big advantages over carrying around a bulky notebook, and having to dig through a set of cards to find the right one then place it on a velcro strip on a certain page.”
Occupational therapists have worked with Tyler at school to help him deal with his visual focus, and the iPad has several applications for visual therapy, too.
Tyler is making some progress.
“Recently, for the first time ever, he spontaneously went to a computer [with touch screen] at school and began playing a game,” she recalled. “That’s huge in our world.
“Also, since therapists at school have been using an iPad to illustrate routines and procedures, he seems to have less anxiety... he seems more calm and focused, happier and cooperative,” Dobbs said. “In other words, he seems to have a better understanding of what’s going on around him, and what’s expected of him, which is reassuring. And this understanding helps him move through his day more independently.”
For Dobbs, getting an iPad, if it turns out to be the right tool to help Tyler communicate with others, would mean a lot.
The iPad challenge has no deadline, she said. Participants promote the program and ask for support — when 60 pieces get credited to a participant, that person will receive an iPad 2.
“It would end the nightmare of him living locked in his world, alone, for the rest of his life, without a way to express his feelings or ask for help when in pain or distress,” Dobbs explained.
“I don’t mean that he’ll live a ‘normal’ life. He’ll always need support from caregivers. But if he could communicate at a basic, functional level with those caregivers, the quality of his life will improve dramatically.”

To help, go to www.thepuzzlingpiece.com/products to place an order. When it asks for the challenger’s name, type in Tyler Dobbs.