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Sports : iPad a boon for autistic kids

Ruben Boucher looks like any other five-year-old kid at a play school - except that he's playing with an iPad.
He is one of thousands of South African children who suffer from autism and who struggle with social interaction and communication.

And Apple's tablet, with its large touchscreen and interactivity, has proved helpful in educating autistic children, says Dr Jenni Gous, principal of the Key School for Specialised Education (Autism) in Johannesburg. "Our children took to the immensely portable screens with as much excitement as the staff," she said.
"The beauty of the iPad is that it is immediately accessible. The iPad, in my opinion, is going to change the way we teach children and we are only beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of its potential."
Boucher was non-verbal last year, although he speaks selectively to his parents, but was highly interactive when using the "iPad" when the Sunday Times visited the school this week. He repeated words pronounced by the iPad and replied to his teacher.
"Ruben struggles to speak, so now it's easier for him to communicate through pictures," said his mother, Audrey Boucher. "It actually helps us to understand him better. He loves it."
Many autistic children are non-verbal or will speak only to a few people (usually parents or teachers), and are overwhelmed by everyday sensory input.
For most, using the keyboard and mouse of a computer is very difficult, and almost impossible for younger kids who don't have the developmental education yet.
The iPad, however, can be used with a finger and gives the user immediate feedback. Free iPad applications like the "Green Splosh" and "Gina the Giraffe" teach kids counting and basic morality.
"The apps are amazing in their variability, in their colours, in their sounds, and in their levels," said Gous.
Globally, autism affects one in 100 children, and affects four to eight times more boys than girls, she added, but no research has been done in South Africa.
Founded in 1973, the Key School (which as an independent school doesn't get state subsidies) has 40 pupils aged two to 12. It bought 10 iPads in April, which was matched by The Core Group, Apple's official representative in South Africa.
"The uptake has been phenomenal, especially in the short time period," said Michelle Lissoos, an educationalist who works with Core. "Learners are communicating with their parents for the first time."
This is the first project of its kind in this country.
The iPad, which was launched last April, is the gold standard of the new tablet market, and is being seen as the new medium for many things, including magazines. But it is in education that it appears able to make the most startling difference.
There has a been a "phenomenal" global interest in using iPads with autistic kids, as they replace other devices that cost thousands of dollars, said Lissoos, the managing director of Think Ahead, which looks at using Apple products and software in education.
"Literally within a week, we've seen the uptake of the teachers, learners and parents. It really is amazing. Characteristically autistic children can't connect with the world and the iPad is a bridge," she said.
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