Monday, December 13, 2010

How the iPad is Changing Our World

What do eye gaze, iPad applications and the New York Times have in common? Well, in the broadest sense of the words, they are all forms of social communication. Eye gaze is the earliest form of communication a person can have. Every parent remembers the intense staring of their newborn and how it makes you fall in love over and over as the infant learns the power of his gaze and then later his smile while looking at you.
The lack of appropriate eye gaze can be an indication of many neurological disorders including Autism or mental retardation among others. The visual system is a very refined and well developed system that fosters learning from the time of birth onward as we grow. It is integral part of our neurological development. Visual attention is the basic prerequisite for speech, social communication and social engagement. The lack of visual attention or appropriate eye gaze can be disastrous in school. It affects all aspects of school performance from reading to writing to attention.

What I find most intriguing is that children with X and Y chromosome Variations although often accelerated in spatial skills, can be quite deficient in their eye gaze and tracking. The nuances of their visual system are not yet well understood but these subtle differences affect them in many ways. Poor eye gaze in social situations can confound their development of friendships and may be misinterpreted by peers.
The person who stares away in conversation and averts his or her gaze makes people uncomfortable, nervous and at worst suspicious. In my experience I have found that the children with additional X and Y chromosomes have atypical eye gaze because of decreased ocular coordination. It is associated with the developmental dyspraxia that I write about.

How does this all relate to iPad applications and the New York Times? Well I am developing better eye gaze, visual tracking and social engagement in my patients using specific iPad applications... But what is utterly shocking is how easy it is.

Just this week, the New York Times published an article discussing the value of iPad applications for children with impairments in learning and communication. It is an interesting article which reinforces the importance of finding alternative means of communication for our children with special needs. But what is intriguing to me is that children with all sorts of disabilities will engage for longer periods of time, do more rigorous activities and persevere in the most unimaginable ways when it comes to using iPad applications. Throughout my career, the children who perplexed me the most where the kids with low verbal ability. Their parents reported quite consistently that the children knew more than anyone at school realized. The schools often reported frustration with the kids and questioned the parent's beliefs. Yet what I heard from parents was not recognition of their child's deficits but this nagging and powerful belief that there was more there.
Over the years I have been able to demonstrate quite clearly how competent these children were using nonverbal testing but often there was few choices for intervention after I demonstrated their abilities. They were hard to engage, their hand function was poor and most important their eye gaze was fast and fleeting and not well developed. Everyone was stuck and the child often suffered because there were few options to foster his atypical learning style.
In the last four months since I started using my iPad with these patients, I have had spectacular results. I am now developing a library of applications that we have found useful for certain types of patients. What I love about my job is that every single day provides some sort of surprise to me about the brain and how children learn. Over the last several weeks, two children, very different in their diagnosis, their age and their developmental levels shared one common characteristic... they were nearly impossible to assess on standardized protocols. They were believed to be very non compliant and difficult to engage. Levels of function were believed to be low and parents were frustrated. WELL...

We started using iPad applications and compliancy increased, social interactions improved and eye gaze evolved in a more purposeful manner.
Different applications were used but the outcome was the same. One child learned to point purposefully with his index finger, a skill rarely seen prior to the use of applications. The other child would take turns, request and even socialize with the examiner as long as an application was involved.

The lesson learned is that even the impossible can become quite easy if the medium is right.

Like the NYT, I believe that the iPad has changed the world, but even more importantly it has given me the ability to reach what seemed to be the unreachable just a few short months ago... Thanks Steve Jobs for opening another gateway into the minds of those children who are easy to dismiss as unreachable but are reachable with the iPad and its specialty applications.

I recommend Cookie Doodle as a great application to initiate socializing and turn-taking.
Interactive books are another way to fully engage children.
10 Revolutionary Apps iPad Apps to Help Autistic Children
Best iPad Apps for Autism and Asperger's Syndrome
Even more useful apps
And of course, some free, fun apps for the holiday season

Monday, December 6, 2010


Hello and welcome to our first official entry on The Focus Foundation blog page! I am hoping that many families will read and follow us so this can be informative as well as a place for you all to communicate with myself and each other about some of the unique challenges you may share.
This is my first blog entry ever, and to be honest I do not understand the whole blogosphere that well, and I often find myself coming into technology kicking and screaming each step of the way. But I must admit, I love the speed and ease of it all once I truly understand it...
So here we go!

Parenting is the only job that may never end. 24/7, 365 days a year until you are no longer here or the BIG D (DEMENTIA) sets in... But in reality, parents worry, love, care and think of their children always. It unites any group of individuals who are in any setting at anytime if the subject of their offspring comes up. Biologically, we as parents are hard wired to care for our children. So what happens when the child is diagnosed with a neurogenetic disorder or is an atypical learner. Our concerns and worries increase overnight and anxiety that may never have been present suddenly rears its head.
Over the years, I have learned so many helpful facts from families, the kids, my scientific research and my own ongoing education... it is NOW a time to share in a more informative manner... This is an easy give and take, no rules other than common courtesies of being polite, being kind and recognizing that we can agree to disagree and remain friends. No charge other than your valuable time.

It seems to me the more information that is fact based from reliable sources (no easy task for sure) for all parents is the way to go. So who does one believe...? Their mother??? Their pediatrician??? Articles in the press?? What about your neighbor?? Well, sometimes it's all of the above and occasionally none of the above.

The purpose of this blog and indeed the Focus Foundation is:
"to share to the best of our knowledge from the
finest sources to help your children learn more efficiently.
I hope to provide the science of development as well as the magic of kids and their astonishing minds. I will discuss the wonder of learning gathered from all the fields of science since cross fertilization makes so much sense but is so rarely exposed. This blog will be topic driven and my intent is to help all of the children reach their optimal performance in many ways. I say to my patients every day:

Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you'll land upon a star! But there is no greater tragedy than underestimating a young mind which leads to the reality of untapped potential.”

I have great hope that this will be fun for all of us and at the end of each encounter we will all be better parents and our understanding of our own kids will improve. Expect the unexpected and you will never be surprised—more soon!
-Dr. Samango-Sprouse