Forest Park Library Using iPads to Help Autistic Children

By Nigel Chiwaya on October 2, 2012 3:44pm 

FOREST HILLS — Five children and their parents gathered in a room in the back of the North Forest Park Library Monday afternoon, their their heads buried in paper as their teachers walked around them.

Tommy Cusack, 10, scribbled furiously as his father, Tom Sr., looked on. When he asked what kind of story the boy wanted to write, Tommy looked up and said calmly, "It's supposed to be action-packed."

After a bit more writing, Tommy asked his father, "Can I use the iPad now?" When Tom Sr. said yes, his son put down the paper, picked up the tablet in front of him and started swiping away.

The iPad time was not a reward for a few minutes of work. Rather, Tommy, who is autistic, was using the Apple tablet to learn the basics of storytelling as part of a tech-centric enrichment program.

The five-week program, run by the Queens Museum of Art's Autism Initiatives, lets autistic children and their parents use the iPads to create stories every week with recorded sound, cartoon images and effects.

Jennifer Oppito-Candiano, the Associate Coordinator of Autism Programs for the museum, helps run the iPad storytelling class and says its goals are two-fold; teaching children the basics of storytelling while placing them in a social environment.

According to Oppito-Candiano, the iPads are used because they are familiar to the children.

“Many students have access to iPads for their communication devices, she said. “We wanted to find a way to help families learn to use the iPads in a creative and educational way.“

Tom Sr., who attended the class with his wife Mary and their twin sons Tommy and Nicky, was a big fan of the program.

"It's interactive and educational and fun for kids," said Cusack, who lives in Williston Park, LI. Cusack said the iPads helped draw the kids into the class.

"Once they can manipulate something and see the results, they get this sense of excitement," he said.

The hour-long classes start off with a greeting exercise, in which every child says hello to another child in the class. The children are then introduced to the week's topic; Monday's was the concept of a problem or conflict in the story. The iPads are off during this point, and are only touched when the children get the all clear from their teachers about midway through the class.

Throughout the latter half of the class, parents and teachers help the children craft their interactive stories, which the kids create using Bookabi, a free iPad app that allows kids to add photos and record their voices to the stories.

When the stories are done, kids can present their masterpieces, which play back the recorded audio each time a page is flipped, in the front of class.

"We wanted to make them feel like they were making a book," Oppito-Candiano said, “and we really wanted them to be able to record sounds.”

The program, which was made possible by a grant from the Queens Library, is limited to five families at a time, to ensure each child can get the attention needed.

"Kids need that one-on-one attention to help them develop their ideas further," said Michelle Lopez, the class' other instructor.

And according to Lopez, the kids did successfully expand their ideas.

“A lot of them come in with an idea that they’ve seen somewhere else,” Lopez said. “But after a few weeks they’ve got their own ideas.”

Each session is capped at five families, so interested parents cannot join the next class. But for further information on similar programs offered, parents can contact Autism Initiatives at 718-592-9700 ext. 130 or by emailing autisminitiatives@queensmuseum.org.

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