Ten-year-old Deepak Ramesh loves a good puzzle. Having dragged a dozen jigsaw pieces — head, tail, neck, legs — into place, he squeals when a robotic voice spells out the name of the animal. “Giraffe,” he echoes, then starts to piece together an elephant on his latest gadget: the iPad.
For the last two months, Deepak and 14 other autistic children have been swiping, pinching and tapping their way to a better life. Five days a week, one-and-a-half hours each day, they come to Prayas, a computer and iPad training centre for such children on the campus of the Spastics Society of Karnataka in Bangalore. Parents and teachers associated with the project, launched in July 2011 by the Autism Society of India in collaboration with SAP Labs India, a software applications research company, say the iPad has already had a positive effect.
Kavita Sharma, herself the mother of an autistic child, manages Prayas and says such children have a penchant for technology. “There are dozens of visually striking and easy-to-follow iPad applications — ranging from voice-assisted writing for early learners to Wordsearch, which involves scanning a screen full of letters for words, to doodling apps — that help special children improve their cognitive skills while also enjoying the pleasure of a challenge,” says Sharma. “There is a free app called Talking Tom, for instance. It’s a cat that repeats whatever you say. A five-year-old here has learned to speak much better by exploring his voice through the app.”
The centre, with half a dozen computers and seven iPads loaded with handpicked applications, offers a five-month course.
“We have got requests for five or six more labs, but first, we want to see how this one goes,” says V R Ferose, MD, SAP Labs India. The idea began as a series of monthly iPad workshops for parents and teachers working with autistic children, conducted by SAP Labs volunteers from their Whitefield campus. “One out of every 250 children born in India is autistic. Technology can be an enabler in their learning and help make them independent. Since the points of action and reaction are the same in the iPad, unlike in a computer where you type on the keyboard and the output appears on the screen, it is a great platform for these children to learn,” says Ferose. SAP Labs plans to modify existing iPad apps and to build customised content for special educators and parents in India.
At Prayas, Preksha, 21, a cheerful woman who can sing all ABBA and Phil Collins numbers from memory, now has an iPad of her own. “We went to a SAP Labs workshop and I thought I should get her one. She loves reading epapers and abridged Shakespeare ebooks on her iPad and she has recently discovered photography,” says Vani Rajendran, her mother.
Shobha Ramesh, Deepak’s mother, says she is happy with his progress. “He draws better, his typing skills have improved. He doesn’t like it if I correct him. When he enters a wrong input on the iPad and it doesn’t accept it, he corrects himself,” she says. Deepak’s favourite apps are puzzles and Wordsearch, and he is good at both.
On a Monday morning, Sharma’s son, 15-year-old Ujjwal, is busy animating a butterfly on a desktop computer. The gadget-savvy teen prefers the PC for learning and uses his iPad to connect with friends on Facebook and to download music.
For some children, the iPad is like a walk in the garden — it destresses and entertains. Mayank Misra, a 10-year-old non-verbal child, counts strawberries and grapes on an iPad. “He is going through a low, he has been reticent of late,” says Sonal Joshi, staff member. Despite being good at typing, maths and pattern recognition, a moody Mayank refuses to go anywhere near a PC. “He likes to sit here on this bench and play games on the iPad,” Joshi says.
Priya Shah, a special educator who homeschools her 10-year-old son Tarun, says autistic children tend to fixate on things. “They like gadgets, so they may fixate on the iPad too. The challenge is to channel this enthusiasm and help them get better at dealing with life.”