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updated: 3/21/2013 12:53 PM

Finding your child's voice

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By Sherry Manschot

Imagine having a child who struggles with verbal communication. Would you know if he or she were in pain? Could you comfort him or her if you didn't know what was causing the pain? Would you ever feel like you were able to fully connect with your child? So many families live through this on a daily basis because they have a child who either struggles with verbal communication or is completely nonverbal.

Just three years after the first model came out and with more than 100 million sold, iPads are being used by families as communication devices. Many are finding tremendous success allowing them to access new levels of communication with family members.

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Judy Peters got an iPad for her 8-year-old son Matthew two years ago following a recommendation from his occupational therapist. It was suggested as a way to engage him more. Matthew has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism and until two years ago was completely nonverbal. Until then he was limited to using a typical picture system and basic sign language to communicate.

Peters admits that she wasn't quick to jump on board but has rapidly become a fan of the iPad.

"Matthew loves it and takes it everywhere with him," says Peters. "Once we found what motivated him, he began using it all the time. He even taught himself how to use it within the first week." At that time Matthew was fascinated by car washes. Peters found videos of them on YouTube and Mathew was hooked. Now he searches on his own.

Devices like the iPad are making a tremendous difference in the lives of children and adults with special needs. They are easy to interface with, intuitive, provide quick and easy-to-understand responses, and can be used across a spectrum of disabilities. Apps designed specifically for special needs groups are booming.

Peters has found that there are many free apps that provide a great start. Some of her favorites include flashcards depicting food, animals, feelings, etc. They simultaneously say and show the word while providing a picture making it easy for Matthew to hear and understand. He can then choose the items that best allow him to communicate his needs and wants with mom.

Its portability allows Matthew to take it with him to school too. Teachers are incorporating its use into his day. Because of his sensory issues, sometimes transitions and the noise level of regular classroom activities can be problematic. His iPad provides familiarity which can comfort him and some of the game-type apps can be used as rewards or to refocus him as needed.

They have also begun using it to support the classroom learning at home. Matthew now works on his spelling words at home using the iPad. It provides a consistency between school and home that is often important for children with special needs.

In the two years since the family has been using the iPad, Peters has seen significant changes in the way that everyone relates to Matthew.

"I would never have been able to have the insight into his interests like I do now," says Peters. "He found a slide guitar and is fascinated by it. I eventually got an iPad too. It has been a wonderful way for us to relate to each other on a completely new level. We will sit together playing the same game side-by-side. It is fun for both of us and is something we can do together."

Peters really likes the commonality of the iPad. Because millions of people own them, Matthew doesn't stand out. In fact, it has even helped him socially in school. Matthew and his peers, both typical and with special needs, can bond by playing games together on the iPad. Peters believes that this motivates his peers to get to know him a little better and hopes that it will lead to building relationships. She believes that it can open doors for Matthew that he can't open himself because he doesn't have the words to express himself.

Matthew is finding his voice. Thanks in part to the iPad, he is able to communicate and interact on new levels. He is able to share his thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes in ways that he wasn't able to before.

"I know my guy understands so much more than people give him credit for. We, as parents, need to find out what motivates our child. We may need to be creative, but we can get it," shares Peters. Her advice for parents is to not be intimidated. You don't have to start with something complicated. She suggests starting with something that your child is interested in and support that through apps and you will both know when to take it to the next level.

Finding your child's voice can be amazing thing for both you and your child.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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