BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — You would never know young Ben Mover has autism by the way he plays with his toys and scoots about a conference room at Northeast Arc’s Autism Support Center.
At 21/2, when most children are putting sentences together, Ben can make sounds and give signals — he puts his hand on his chest when he wants something, for example — but he cannot speak.
In recent months, Ben has become a whiz with his iPad. He taps on pictures that announce which item he wants to play with from his toy medical kit.
A Band-Aid,” says the iPad when Ben touches a picture of one on the screen.
“What do we say?” his mother, Elizabeth Mover, asks.
“Ouch,” Ben touches the screen. “Ouch. A Band-Aid.”
To put more iPads in the hands of nonverbal children like Ben, George Harrington, the former owner of the downtown Salem restaurant The Lyceum, has launched an iPads for Autism campaign. Harrington, who is chairman of the effort, is a longtime supporter of Northeast Arc and is attempting to raise $150,000 to support the nonprofit’s Touch to Talk program.
This program would not only help buy iPads and special software, but hire specialists to train those like Ben and his family to use the devices effectively. Harrington’s campaign has already attracted a $75,000 grant from the Van Otterloo Family Foundation, and he has raised close to $100,000 so far.
Gloria Ricardi Castillo, the co-director of Northeast Arc’s Autism Support Center at 6 Southside Road, said the idea of using “an augmentative device like an iPad” is to help Ben communicate as he works with a speech and language pathologist.
About 25 percent of children with autism are nonverbal, she said. It is estimated that there are 3,000 kids who are nonverbal in Northeast Arc’s service area, and Ricardi Castillo said all of them could benefit from the Touch to Talk program.
“You see children 12 to 14 years old, they have no verbal skills and no access to a device like that,” said Ricardi Castillo, who has a son with autism. He uses a voice output device to communicate. “It changed his life,” she said.
To see how Ben uses an iPad to communicate, all you have to do is ask him a question.
“What do you want to do?” asks the boy’s mom, a 29-year-old intensive care unit nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Ben reaches for an iPad touch tablet, encased in blue protective bumpers. He pushes on an image and the iPad chirps: “Bubbles.”
Ben makes an “o” sound.
Then he starts tapping out a primitive sentence, and the iPad says: “Little. Big. Blow. Get it.”
That means Ben wants to play with his bubbles and he wants his mom to open them. Soon, he’s filling the conference room with bubbles.
Ben was diagnosed with autism just over a year ago. Mover, who also has a 1-year-old son, Nathan, said she noticed that when Ben was 1, he wasn’t saying words but just kept babbling. He also did not play with kids his own age, preferring to be with adults. Her doctor said she should wait until Ben was a little older. The family saw a number of specialists, and a year ago, Ben began early intervention programs.
Most nonverbal children are taught to communicate using what is called a Picture Exchange Communication System, which uses binders full of pictures that a child can use to point to what they want, with the goal of eventually developing speech.
For Ben, the binders — which had pictures held by fabric fasteners — were fascinating, but for the wrong reasons.
“He just thought the Velcro was fun, taking them (the pictures) all off,” his mother said.
About four months ago, a private speech therapist introduced the Mover family to an iPad and the TouchChat app. The family then bought the tablet, and Mover did some research on how to use the device effectively.
“He knows how to get around it better than I do,” Mover said. To personalize the pictures further, Mover has taken pictures of her son’s favorite foods, and she uses the device so he can pick out breakfast.
Harrington, who helped spearhead a capital campaign 11 years ago to build the Autism Support Center, said he got the idea of the iPads for Autism campaign from a story by Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” last year that looked at the use of iPads with autistic children at a school in Toronto.
While there is some concern that autistic children may depend too much on the iPad for speech, Ricardi Castillo said evidence suggests that the device helps nonverbal children speak by reinforcing and repeating the words.
“Steve Jobs is giving a voice to the voiceless,” Harrington said.
To watch a video about the iPads for Autism campaign, go to http://ne-arc.org/videoDec2012.htm. To donate to the campaign, go to http://www.ne-arc.org and click “donate” or call 978-624-2487. If you have questions about autism, call the Autism Support Center at 978-777-9135.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.