FORT WORTH, Texas — Travis Pilcher, 20, didn’t talk for most of his life.

He was a mystery to his teachers, who couldn’t find a way to help the young man with severe autism. By the time he was a teenager, his parents, Michael and Shannia Pilcher of Fort Worth, were exhausted from dealing with his mood swings and aggressive behavior.

“When he couldn’t get his point across, he became so frustrated that he would explode,” Shannia Pilcher said.

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Three years ago, Travis was chosen to be the guinea pig in a Fort Worth school district effort to equip nonverbal special education students with iPads. Within months, he was swiping symbols on the screen that converted text to speech. He would mimic the sounds he heard from the iPad to talk to his parents.

For the first time, Travis was communicating.

The tall, slender young man who had been known for pitching fits became a calm, adoring son who shares kisses with his mother.

“It was a 180-degree change,” Michael Pilcher said. “He’s not aggressive anymore.”

Travis is one of about 50 students with autism, Down Syndrome and other challenges who are using iPads to communicate inside and outside the classroom at Boulevard Heights Alternative School, said Debbie Manning, a speech language pathologist at the school.

Children who barely had social skills are using iPads to break their silence, she said.

“We have students … we’ve never heard utter a sound, they’re beginning to vocalize and make word approximations,” Manning said. “It’s been more than a miracle.”

The school has depended on 20 iPads — roughly two per classroom — since the program was launched, speech language therapist Kellie Cullen said. Another 10 iPads also are being used at the transitional center for special education students.

Because of the success at drawing out reluctant speech learners, the Fort Worth school board last month approved the purchase of more than 130 additional iPads, which will be distributed throughout special education classrooms at regular campuses in the school district.

“Most of our students, especially students with autism, have good motor skills, vision and hearing skills, so they can utilize an iPad,” Cullen said. “It’s been a total game changer for us. We’re talking about a shift in the culture here.”

Dozens of other special education students across the district have also benefited from the devices. Valerie Godines, a 21-year-old student who has Down syndrome, got an iPad just two months ago, her mother, Maria Godines, said.

“She’s communicating more,” Maria Godines said. “There are still things I don’t understand, but with the iPad, she tells us what she wants and what she needs.”

Enrique Cuellar, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome who is nonverbal, participates in a transitional school-to-work program. He has also been using an iPad to communicate, his mother said.

On a recent Monday morning, he was among students demonstrating how they swipe icons and communicate with their parents. Enrique chose icons that described what he wanted to eat (enchiladas), where he wanted to go (school) and where he wanted to spend the night (with his dad). The devices have thousands of words covering everything from food to feelings.

Roman King, a 13-year-old with autism, learned to speak using the iPad, said his mother, Jessica Clemente.

She prodded him with questions: “What is your name? What do you like to eat?” And he answered crisply, right away.

Enrique’s mother, Danielle Sanchez, said this is just the start. She wants to see kids with special needs introduced to the iPad starting in elementary school, “so that by high school, we’re going to be wishing they couldn’t talk as much.”

Gaining in popularity

Educators and parents at schools across the country have reported promising results with iPad use among children with autism for the past several years. Nonprofits have sprung up in various regions to collect money to help get the devices in the hands of children who need them.

Manning and Cullen decided to try iPads after they saw university research showing they helped students with autism learn speech later than previously thought.

The district had been using another device, but each cost more than $6,000, but the iPads, at $1,000 each with special software, mean the district could help more students.

The software, Words for Life, carries up to 5,000 words. So a student who begins to learn the word “eat” can gradually add on related words, such as “enchilada.”

Manning says the devices imitate normal language development.

“Similar to when one learns keyboarding skills, the students are learning a motor plan,” Manning said.

A student can swipe a word and hear it immediately, over and over. The iPad creates immediate feedback and the student is in control of the pacing.

“Our goal is to help kids be able to communicate better,” Cullen said. “If they don’t have words, we want to get them words. If they don’t have sentences, we want to get them sentences. If they have sentences but no social skills, we want to get them social skills so they can have relationships.”

Before he learned to use his iPad, Roman King would walk the hallways in silence. Now, Cullen said, he searches for his teachers.

“Now it’s, ‘Good morning, Ms. Kellie,'” Cullen said. “It sends me over the moon, especially when I would be at the other end of the hallway.

“That’s super social behavior,” Cullen said. “He used to be just to himself and now there’s a whole world around him.”

© 2015 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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