iPad2 technologies are now being used in Siskin Institute's early intervention classrooms for toddlers with developmental delays. (Photo: Staff)

A pilot program for developmentally delayed children that combines new communication therapies with iPad2 technologies has started at the Center for Child and Family Research at Siskin Children’s Institute in Chattanooga.

Last October, the first iPad2 was introduced into the institute's Escalate program for toddlers, and a recent anonymous donation of 22 more will allow each of the center's classrooms to have its own device this year.

The use of touch-screen technology to help improve and encourage communication and social skills in children with autism and other developmental disabilities is being tried in many centers around the country.

Recent reports are indicating an increase in positive results when the iPad is used with children with autism, with research showing improvements to a child's willingness to socialize, as well as enhancing the child's attention span.

In this "60 Minutes" broadcast from October, a 27-year-old autistic boy has learned to use his iPad and the special language applications his mother installed as a way to communicate what he sees, wants and feels. Additional apps help him practice making eye contact and identifying other complex emotions. With the help of the device, his mother said her son is communicating fully now and can be a part of the real world.

Although the students who have been participating in the pilot program in Chattanooga are much younger, the echoes from their families are similar.

“The No.1 goal that families want to work on are communication strategies. Depending on what the levels the kids are—some as young as 2—they are generally not talking, and if they are talking, they are not using what we call more functional language,” Kelly DeJong, the Southeast Tennessee District autism consultant for the Escalate program, said.

The use of visual supports such as sign language, 3-D objects and laminated pictures and photographs have all been used successfully to help a toddler communicate what he needs.

DeJong said the iPad technology brings those proven strategies to a whole new level.

With the help of an application called iCommunicate, DeJong is able to see toddlers immediately interact and respond to images on the tablet, allowing them to feel more in control as the screen reacts to their touch, keeping the child engaged and focused.

“That is why we are able to get kids interested because they like the fact that they can control something and it responds,” DeJong said.

Tucker's story
Using iCommunicate allows DeJong and other interventionists to help steer each child in targeted directions designed to address individual issues.

Tucker is a 2-year-old enrolled in Escalate who has not been diagnosed with autism yet but has several developmental disabilities that are impeding his verbal and social skills.

He also has food resistance issues that are limiting his diet to less than 10 food items he will agree to eat on a regular basis. As he continues to get more picky and frustrated with not being able to communicate his needs, the iPad offers a window for Tucker and his family.

Every day during lunchtime, Tucker sits down to a nearly full plate of food. The iPad is brought to his lunch table to help him make his own choices on what else he wants to eat while working on improving his verbal skills.

“If it gives him a certain amount of choice, then it reduces what we are asking [him] to do, and then it is something [he] can live with it,” DeJong said.

Through a series of very basic and easily broken-down steps, DeJong and her staff are using the iPad with Tucker to get him more comfortable interacting with the foods he resists, letting him just “be around” the food without being asked to eat it yet.

He is also able to use the touch screen to make choices for himself about the foods he does like. During the act of selecting, the fun, colorful, interactive screen is also rewarding in itself, and Tucker can see and hear the word for the item he chooses. DeJong said the hope is that eventually he will use that word verbally to tell you what he wants without the use of the device. Early interventions such as these could help create that language bridge, DeJong said.

Even simple transitions like a change of activity or location can be confusing and frightening to a child with autism. Preparing the child for what is next in their day by showing them photos on the iPad can lessen that anxiety and help the child focus, according to DeJong.

Mixed findings so far
Local and long-term results remain to be seen, but use of iPads at other centers around the country have mixed findings so far.

In fact, in a recent article published in Education Week last month, the executive director of the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose, Calif., said she found that some children just get drawn to patterns and repetition rather than actually learning.

"It's a little bit tricky because it's such a compelling medium for kids with autism ... they want to do it intensely," Jennifer Sullivan told the publication.

But DeJong said she has already seen positive results continue after the device has been put away.

“A lot of times we see more success after the repetition because the barrier is broken down,” she said.

DeJong stresses that the using the device as a means to make connections with kids who are isolated in their own minds and bodies is at the core of the test program. But it is just one of many tools she uses and cannot ever replace true person-to-person interaction, she said.

Updated @ 12:34 p.m. on 03/14/12 to correct a hyperlink.