I love that quote because it is so true. I wanted to share a story that could help give families a better perspective of what life is like for families who have kids with autism.
Almost 3 years ago, we received a phone call at one am from a police officer. He asked us if we had a little red haired girl. My heart immediately sank into my feet. Addison, my oldest daughter with autism, had left the house in the middle of the night. My wife and I panicked. We jumped straight out of the bed and went to Addy’s room. When we got to her room, we had found her door lock and door alarm dismantled on the floor. Next, we ran to the door to meet the police. In our driveway was our worst fear, the lights of four police cars an ambulance, and a fire truck.
Since Addison was little, she was often prone to wandering. We had taken every precaution available to prevent that from happening. We had window alarms, locks on the doors; we even had a motion light installed in our hallway. That night; none of those precautions helped.
When we met the policemen, he explained to us that a neighbor down the street had gotten up to let their dogs out and saw Addy walking down the road. They knew something was “wrong” with her and that she shouldn’t be out. They tried to get Addy to stop and come inside but she panicked and took off running.
When the police found Addy, they assumed that she was either sick or that she had gotten into some medication that was causing her odd behaviors. Kids with autism often have trouble communicating. Autism is a neurological disorder that effects 1 in 50 kids. Kids with autism may have trouble talking, looking people in the eye, and can get upset by loud noises or bright lights. Because of Addison’s autism she is mostly non-verbal. At that time she had less than ten words that she could use appropriately. She wasn’t telling the police anything because she couldn’t.
One of the officers noticed that Addison had an iPhone in her hand. She was walking down the street playing a game on her IOS device. He was able to convince her to let him hold it. He scrolled through the contacts and began calling numbers until he found us. He told me that Addison was safe. Before he could give her back to us, he had to come and make sure that the house was safe. One of the EMTs knew Addison. His mom was an assistant in Addison’s special needs class. He informed the police that she had autism. They called Addison’s doctors at UMC to confirm that she had autism. The UMC doctors knew Addison well and recommended that she be returned to us as soon as possible.
Sadly, kids with autism wander all the time. We were lucky and blessed that Addison came back to us. Since this story she has wandered two more times. Each time she was seeking out water. Each time we were lucky enough to find her. She has not wandered in over a year. She is about to turn eleven now. Her favorite activities include swimming and playing on her iPad. My wife and I wanted to find the positive in this story and we found it in a big way. Since Addison took her iOS device with her that night we knew that she was fond of it. When you have a child with autism take an interest in something, as a parent, you have to run with it. We started working one on one with Addison each night on her iPad to help her learn to use the device to communicate. Now she uses her iPad to show us things she wants, or places she would like to go. She uses it to practice handwriting and even counting. However, it’s not just used for work. I could guide her through an app but I started to watch and wonder what would she play when I wasn’t working with her. I started to watch and see what Addison would play on her own. She would often pull out her iPad and immediately open Toca Boca’s Toca Hair Salon. She enjoyed cutting the characters hair and drying it with the dryer. I noticed that the apps are easy for her to just open, and then begin playing. She loves cooking in Toca Kitchen and making music with Toca Band. The TOCA BOCA apps even started to carry over into what both of my kids with autism could do on their own. One afternoon my son and Addison had setup up their own Tea Party on the dining room table. As a parent we are happy that we have a found a way to engage our kids with iPads. We are also grateful for apps like the ones from Toca Boca that entertain and teach our kids at the same time.
Toby Price is a special needs dad and Assistant Principal at Richland Upper Elementary in Richland Mississippi. He has been married for 12 years to his wife Leah. He has 3 wonderful kids Addison, McKade, and Marley Kate.
We love it when kids – all kids, any kids – have fun with Toca Boca toys. However, sometimes we hear stories about our apps being an actual help to kids with various difficulties – autism, learning disabilities etc. We don’t develop our apps specifically for these children, but it’s always extra heartwarming to hear about them enjoying our apps, finding help developing new skills and discovering their own creativity. This is one letter we received the other day, from Rachel Kremen in New Jersey:
I just wanted to send you an email to let you know how wonderful your apps have been for my three-year-old autistic son, Riley. Riley is the kind of autistic child who naturally has an incredible memory for facts: he could fully read at 18 months, now knows the shape and location of every country on earth, all the flags, bones in the body, etc.
Despite all this, he could not play. He did not understand the idea of a toy – any toy without obvious educational value. If you handed him a train, he would bang it or put it in his mouth, even at age two. If you handed him a doll, same thing.
Initially, we bought him apps that were academically oriented (such as geography and math quiz games), because he enjoyed them. But what we really wanted was for him to learn how to play like other children and be creative. No matter how we tried to show him how to play, he did not understand anything that did not involve the same answer every time. So, for example, he could not understand how to play with trains, answer a question about his favorite animal, pretend to feed a doll, or color.
Your apps gave him an environment that was just the right mix of open yet predictable play, so that he could explore the sorts of things other little boys and girls love. And because there is no real language in your apps, it gives us a chance to talk about what is going on, instead of him simply memorizing the lines characters say.
Best of all, he has transferred these play skills to the real world! During his play therapy, he now enjoys pretending to buy and cook food, pretending to paint his dolls’ hair and, most recently, play with a train set. He can tell us all about who is getting on and off the train, what his favorite hair color is, and what he likes to cook.
I realize you aren’t specifically making apps for the autism community, so I thought you might not even realize the kind of positive impact you have in this regard. We look forward to many new Toca Boca apps in the future and wish your company all the best.
My son Leo, like most kids, glows with an awesomeness that takes many forms: he's a fierce bicycle rider, a fish-like swimmer, a walking happiness explosion, and an iPad fiend. He's also autistic, which for him means speaking is difficult (though he hears just fine), learning is unpredictable, reading is hard, other people can be confusing, and even independent play can be overwhelming.
Having an iPad helps Leo through many challenges. It's changed his life, and I don't write that casually. The touch-based interface makes interacting with the tablet computer an intuitive process, as well as very, very accessible. Leo dives into his iPad without hesitation, noticing instantly if new apps have been installed, questing, learning, having a blast. And all on his own! Without needing anyone to show him what to do! I rarely have to instruct him how to use apps on the iPad, though I do gently guide if he needs it, and keep an eye on how he's using his iDevice (Safari and YouTube and Google, oh my).
But it's not just the iPad that makes a difference, for Leo it's the apps — their content, their design, their interactive animations and sounds motivate Leo to engage, engage, engage, learn learn learn, play play play. The best apps for Leo have simple, elegantly designed, easy-to-use, structured interfaces that make learning enticing, and play extra-fun — yet are predictable enough that Leo can get familiar with them instantly while still providing enough creative bandwidth to sidestep boredom.
It's no secret that Toca Boca makes open-ended digital toys that Leo loves, and it's not surprising, either: they provide exactly the kind of well-designed iPad experiences he seeks out and obsesses over. They have funky-cool graphics and characters to draw Leo in, plus they're designed for an international audience — which means minimal text. Which means Leo's pre-reader status is not an issue. Which means, again, that he can use the toys independently! That’s a huge achievement for my boy.
Toca Boca’s digital toy apps apps are unique in that they're not really geared towards academics or pure play, but a mesmerizing third space: pretend play. Leo was never interested in pretend play before he started playing with these apps, but now he is having daily tea parties, birthday parties, giving hair cuts and colors, playing doctor pretending to cook meals, and playing house. All things he used to care less about, outside his iPad. It's fun to see him get silly and creative: giving a dog a rainbow-colored mohawk, frying up a fish and feeding it to an appreciative cat. It's even more gratifying to see the Toca cues translate to real world actions like Leo setting and clearing the table — completing said chores with much less fuss than his sisters, I might add.
Social opportunities are another lovely benefit of Toca Boca’s toys. Other kids don't always know how to play with Leo, and he doesn't always know how to play with them, but I've yet to meet a kid who didn't want to play with Toca Boca toys. When Leo is playing with them, other kids will approach him and ask if they can join in, which is tremendous — especially when it's his seven-year-old sister India. Leo is learning to get past his social anxiety and not only let other kids play with him, but learning to tolerate turn taking. I know I'm not the only autism parent who lies awake at night, thinking up strategies for encouraging my autistic child to interact socially, so watching these social connections happen spontaneously is heart-warming. Especially since Leo seems to enjoy them, too.
Possibly my favorite aspect of the digital toys that Toca Boca makes is how they encourage Leo to play independently. My enthusiasm for his solo play may seem silly to some parents, but it's a huge deal for a kid who loathes spontaneity and free-form scenarios. The toys provide the basic structure and predictability Leo craves while still providing plenty of opportunities to create. Witness the 30+ different hairstyles he created in Toca Hair Salon, all on his own. He. Is. Having. Fun.
The toys also help keep Leo occupied during one of the banes of childhood existence — being forced to go accompany his mother on endless errands. The erranding can't be helped, but at least Leo now has a way to keep himself occupied most of the time, and even when the lights go dim as during his sister's ophthalmology appointments. Too bad I can't go back in time and hand my childhood self an iPad before going carpet shopping or to the dry cleaner with my own mother.
Leo's not the only Toca Boca fan in the house, by the way. His little sister India is a vocal and unabashed enthusiast, and has a lot to say about why she likes the toys, too, particularly Toca Hair Salon:
I really just want Leo to be happy. I want all three of my kids to be happy. Finding apps that make them happy makes me happy. And when those apps also make it easier for my autistic son to share, learn, socialize, and play? Then I feel perfectly justified in slapping on a pair of rose-colored sunglasses, and declaring the world a better place.
/Shannon Des Roches Rosa
More about Shannon:
I am more than a parent, but with three kids — one of whom has autism — the current playlist has parenting on heavy rotation. I am a kick-ass writer and editor, and have been blogging fearlessly and compassionately about parenting and autism since 2003, at www.Squidalicious.com. I'm also a co-founder and editor at the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism.