Bowling fundraiser helps fund devices for autistic children

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Miguel Aguilar (left) watches his 4-year-old autistic son, Matthew, savor a cupcake at the iPads for Autism fundraiser March 6 at Oxford Lanes in Dearborn. The parents hope to purchase five iPads for the special education program at Thorne Elementary School in Dearborn Heights. The Sunday event at Oxford Lanes raised $1,445, enough for three iPads. The group hopes to purchase at least two more.

Sunday Times Newspapers

HEIGHTS – A recent fundraiser has helped a group of parents here to bring technology to bear in dealing with the needs of autistic schoolchildren.

Parents of nonverbal autistic children in the special education program at Thorne Elementary School netted $1,445 in a March 6 bowling fundraiser at Oxford Lanes in Dearborn. Proceeds will go to purchase three iPad handheld computers to help those children communicate more easily with teachers, staff and parents while decreasing their frustration level.

Autism is a neural development disorder whose signs include impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. It can be recognized in children before they are 3 years old. While the disorder’s cause is not well understood, it affects how the brain processes information by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize.

The Thorne group’s effort, dubbed iPads for Autism, is to get five of the devices for use by students in an effort to duplicate their similar successful use elsewhere. Thorne, part of the Westwood Community School District, serves about 12 early elementary age children with autism spectrum disorder in two classrooms, and as well as 30 developmentally delayed preschoolers, not all of whom have autism.

While each iPad costs $500, the downloadable applications that parents plan to use to help nonverbal special needs children communicate are free. Apple, which manufactures the device, so far has not granted any discounts to the group.

Amy Pollack, whose 4-year-old son, Matthew Aguilar, is autistic and nonverbal, launched the fundraiser plan when she discovered an application on her iPhone that helps him communicate with her. As a result he has expanded his culinary horizons and is experiencing less frustration, she said.

“Matthew’s a very picky eater and … it’s gotten him to eat different foods,” said Pollack’s cousin, Kristina Millman.

Millman said that because Matthew is nonverbal, he can’t express emotions, but an iPad application has pictures of emotions.

“So if Matthew’s angry, he can point to angry,” she said. “If he’s hungry, he can point to hungry.”

Millman said communication between Pollack and Matthew has been so much easier, and that also has experienced less frustration with his teachers.

After Pollack and Millman’s initial brainstorming session, Pollack approached Thorne Primary (kindergarten through second grade) Principal Maureen Molloy with the idea of acquiring iPads for nonverbal students. Molloy told them that a parent-led fundraiser could happen much more quickly than a school-sponsored fundraiser, which would face more bureaucratic hurdles.

Molloy said the iPad applications are relatively new, and that some teachers have been exploring their possibilities. She said the staff has tried without much success to get small grants to acquire the technology.

“While Apple is helpful, they’re not necessarily giving a discounted rate to us,” Molloy said. “It’s a lot of money, and we’ll be pleased if we can raise enough money so that we have one in each classroom at this point to test out and try out.”

Molloy said Thorne eventually would love to have an iPad for each child.

“One of the big barriers for autistic children is the social interaction,” she said. “There is hope obviously that this would help reduce that barrier as well.”

People need to know that the number of cases of autism seems to be growing, Molloy said.

“Children with autism have a lot of gifts,” she said. “We just need to help build on their gifts and build on the positives and help them find their place in society.”

Wanda Alvarado, Thorne’s director of special education services, said using iPads for autistic children is a relatively new experiment that educators have just started to explore this year.

She said the best thing the device does for the children who do not speak is that the visuals helps students communicate their needs. “That’s the most important thing right now,” she said. “They’re always communicating their needs; we just need to see what their needs are.

“We want everyone to know that (autistic children) are able to learn, they are able to communicate, and they are part of our community. They are part of us. We just need to accept them.”

She agreed with Molloy that it would be ideal for all students to have access to iPads in order to let their needs be known.

Donations may be sent by check or money order to: Amy Pollack, iPads for Autism, 25082 Colgate, Dearborn Heights MI 48125.