Computers can be teachers, too

Published 1:11 pm Friday, March 22, 2013

For one Albert Lea family, the Apple iPad has made a tremendous difference in their lives.

Krystal Paulson and Dave Villarreal’s son, Treyton, who’s 4 and goes by Trey, was diagnosed with mild autism by the Albert Lea School District staff. His love for interacting with the iPad has helped him get past what were previously troublesome situations.

Trey Villarreal plays on his iPad. His parents, Krystal Paulson and Dave Villarreal, are thankful because Trey has benefited so much from the technology. --Kelli Lageson/Albert Lea Tribune

Trey Villarreal plays on his iPad. His parents, Krystal Paulson and Dave Villarreal, are thankful because Trey has benefited so much from the technology. –Kelli Lageson/Albert Lea Tribune


The diagnosis

Krystal would watch then 1-year-old Trey play with toys and

interact with other children, and just the way he responded to certain situations told her that he might be different.

When he was 2 1/2 she took Trey to get tested by the school district, who told Krystal he might have a speech impediment. She kept pushing for answers, and Trey was finally diagnosed with mild autism.

Krystal said thankfully Trey is improving and continues to reach new milestones — and she attributes that somewhat to his interaction with his iPad. Trey is high-functioning, but he will have a meltdown where he’ll cry or run to a private room or try to shut others out. Earlier this month Krystal planned to have Trey be observed by an autism specialist so she could talk with the school district about what Trey’s expectations for kindergarten will be and what they can work on to get him ready.


Technology brought improvement

Trey had a hard time speaking when he was younger, but once he got the iPad and started playing word games he kept improving.

“It just clicked for him,” Krystal said.

Dave agrees and said that if they take the iPad away for a week that Trey will become less talkative altogether. He first played games and apps made specifically for children with autism, but now he also plays popular games like “Angry Birds” or watches videos on YouTube.

Trey was allowed to play with the iPad for about an hour a day when he first started using it, but now it’s around him much of the time.

“It’s hard to take it away from him,” Dave said with a laugh.

That doesn’t mean he’s actively using it though; Krystal said it’s a comfort to Trey just to have the iPad near him playing a video while he plays with other toys.

“He always likes to have it on, and he knows when we turn it off,” Krystal said.

And from using the iPad, Trey has learned so much. Where before he was able to say few words, now a few years later he is spelling some words and relating words to objects because of activities he’s done on his iPad. Dave said Trey has also improved his hand-eye coordination, which could possibly be because of the same skills it takes to play certain games on the iPad.

“Now he can kick a ball better,” Dave said.


iPad as a motivator

Because children — autistic or not — seem to have a love for technology, it’s an easy reward for teachers or parents. Shelly DeVries is a teacher for preschoolers with special needs in the Early Childhood Special Education department at Brookside Education Center. She said she uses her classroom iPad as a motivation tool for her students who are in the mild to moderate autism range.

“We say, ‘First you do this and then you get to use the iPad,’” DeVries said. “But we always make sure it’s something educational on the iPad.”

DeVries said they can get the children to do other tasks or interact with others, and then offer them some time with the iPad. But even the fun they’re having on the iPad is really just an educational game or app.

“They’re learning even if they don’t think they are,” DeVries said.

DeVries said there are autistic children in the school district who are nonverbal, and iPads are helping them to communicate what they want and need. Another staffer in the same department who uses an iPad with autistic children is Kim Butler, a speech and language pathologist.

“We have specific apps for articulation, concept development and very specific apps for language development,” Butler said.

Butler said she uses the iPad for story time, taking pictures with the students and other specific apps that help her work on the students’ speech. For the most part, having the iPad has been a positive experience, though there are some students who prefer the electronic interaction more than that of interaction with people.


Parents use rewards, too

While they’re grateful for how far Trey has come since his tough first years, there was one milestone that Krystal and Dave are so glad they were able to overcome. If it weren’t for time on the iPad, Trey wouldn’t have been potty-trained.

“He refused to sit on the toilet,” Krystal said. “It was extremely scary for him.”

They tried everything — books, toys and more — but only the iPad was motivation enough to get Trey to try using the toilet. Krystal said Trey’s therapists told her to try the “first and then” method of asking Trey to first do a task and then get time with the iPad. Krystal said it works with most requests and after a while Trey is able to do the tasks without expecting the iPad after completing a task.

The tablet is a definite comfort for him. His parents said any situation that Trey doesn’t like — for example, when his newborn brother, Tyson, cries — he hangs out underneath a blanket with his iPad. Large group settings, public restaurants and other busy spots can make Trey overwhelmed, but he’s able to get through it without the solace he finds when he has his iPad near.

Trey has also advanced in other ways, and they aren’t necessarily attributed to the iPad. When he was younger he didn’t like playing outside or getting dirty, but now that’s not something that bothers him. He’s still a picky eater, and Dave said one of his big goals is to get Trey to try more foods.

For Krystal and Dave the iPad has been a welcome addition to their home because of how it calms Trey and all it’s helped him to learn and do.

“He doesn’t like too many other things so it has come in handy,” Krystal said.