ESCANABA - While the month of April may have been Autism Awareness Month, autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) is a yearlong, lifelong disability that is growing exponentially every year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the current rate of ASD in the United States is one in 68, making it twice as common as cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, childhood deafness or blindness and 10 times more common than childhood leukemia. Those affected typically display major impairments in three areas: social interaction, communication and behavior.
In 2013, Lynn Messer, past governor of the Wisconsin/Upper Peninsula Kiwanis, took notice and initiated a program that has been referred to as "iPads for Autism." This program, which allows for the purchase of iPads and protective cases at a reduced cost, accepts applications from parents of children with ASD and is endorsed by their teachers. Students are then selected to receive iPads based on need, beginning with those students for whom the iPad can be used as a communication device.
Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press
Lacy Lauzon, behavior consultant for the ISD, YAP president, and an autism team co-worker, shows Kiwanis Club member, Ken Benson, the many ways that various iPad applications can assist children with autism in their learning skills. Looking on is new Kiwanis Club member, Marilyn Albrecht. Kiwanis Clubs, YAP (Youth Assistance Program), and the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District have combined in an effort to provide an iPad and a suitable apps program to area youngsters who would benefit from receiving one.
Cole Tennyson and Alexandra Martin are using their iPads, which are loaded with applications, including those which help them with socialization and communication. Both are students from the DSISD Learning Center.
Local Kiwanians, including the Bay Shore Kiwanis, Gladstone Kiwanis, Escanaba Noon Kiwanis, and Manistique Kiwanis, have teamed up with the Delta County Intermediate School District to help raise money to provide area students with autism access to iPads.
"They have found that the touch-type helps people with autism to find ways to communicate," said Kiwanian Ken Benson. "The Kiwanians collect money and turn it in to the district foundation. We're also in partnership with the ISD and YAP (Youth Assistance Program). These groups come up with the names of children who would benefit from an iPad."
Benson said parents of a autistic child have to write a letter of application in order for their child to be qualified to receive an iPad.
"One of the guidelines is that there must be an official diagnosis in order to be considered," Benson added. "It's already been shown that particular apps (applications) used in an iPad helps the students with their social skills, to communicate, and also with their behavior. Because they have the need for sameness or a routine, many of them have difficulty with traditional learning methods. The ISD also helps decide which apps we want to provide and YAP helps approve a grant for the apps."
A child doesn't have to live in any particular school district to qualify. Eligibility is determined by the ISD, and once an iPad is provided to a student, it is the ISD that teaches the child how to use the program and also provides training to the family.
"If the child receives an iPad, he needs to use it both at home and at school," said Lacy Lauzon, behavior consultant for the ISD, YAP president, and an autism team co-worker.
iPads have become an exciting tool for teachers and therapists working with students with ASD. When students receive an iPad through the Kiwanis program, it is also expected that it can be used at both school and home with the help of parents, siblings, and other caregivers. The iPad becomes a medium of exchange for students with ASD to interact with others when it can otherwise be challenging for them. The results have been remarkable in the areas of skill and relationship building.
In the last year, Kiwanians have donated 582 iPads and raised $240,000 in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Local Kiwanis groups representing Delta and Schoolcraft Counties have raised $2,500 and worked with the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD to provide nine students with iPads to date, along with applications. The cost for a mini-iPad is about $330 and there are many apps that are free of cost, but others range in price from $ .99 to $219.99 and help support the teaching of social skills, communication, and behavioral strategies.
"This is a case where we have three groups working together to help a child," Benson said. "Kiwanians don't mind joining with other groups. It makes it more fun and we can accomplish so much more."
"This is such a small community and its surprising that we can do so much more if we work together, and something that truly benefits the kids," said Lauzon.
"And it's nice to be able to do something specifically for the children," added new Kiwanis Club member, Marilyn Albrecht.
Delta and Schoolcraft counties together have about 50 students who are eligible for special education services due to autism impairment. However, there are several more students with ASD who have strong academic skills and are not receiving special education services, but could also benefit from the use if an iPad for supporting socialization and independence.
To help with their iPad program, Kiwanians take money from their general fund and have various fund-raising programs, including selling ice cream during last year's Sesquicentennial event in Escanaba, and also selling caramel apples.
"It's a matter of trying to get kids what they need and trying to get the money to do it," said Benson. "When our funds are gone, we always have to raise extra money for a special project such as this. By working with YAP, we supply the iPad and YAP supplies the apps."
Anyone interested in helping in this program or joining a Kiwanis club can contact Benson at 428-2261. He will be able to help individuals to decide which of the five clubs in Manistique, Gladstone and Escanaba that best fits their needs.