By Claire Walla
Since it’s inception in 2010, The Flying Point Foundation has made a concerted effort to cater to children with autism on the East End. The group has given them access to traditional summer camp experiences — like surfing, swimming, yoga and other non-competitive sports — that are sometimes difficult for high-needs kids to participate in.
But this year, Flying Point will up the ante. Thanks to an anonymous donation from a local charity organization, Flying Point will introduce new technology to its summer repertoire: the iPad.
“I was contacted by someone from this local foundation who happened to see a segment on ‘60 Minutes’ on iPads and autism,” said Kim Covell, the founding director of The Flying Point Foundation.
The program, which aired in October of 2011, emphasized the communication needs of those with autism, many of whom have trouble expressing their feelings, even in very simple ways. While there are currently devices that address this issue — allowing people to press “yes” or “no” buttons to answer questions instead of verbalizing responses — Covell said she praises the iPad for its versatility.
In addition to a communication-enhancing app called “Proloquo2Go,” which runs around $200, the device is designed to be user-friendly.
“I’m not an expert,” Covell implored, “but from my personal perspective it’s a really important piece of technology for providing easy access to information.”
Covell said that her son, who has autism, recently acquired an iPad and she’s been able to witness how effective it’s been for him.
“The touch screen is huge,” she said in terms of its importance. “When you look at the apps, it’s very clearly delineated what you have to choose.”
She said the simplicity of touching images to open programs actually streamlines the whole process, while the desktop computer interface requires users to click on series of folders and files to find programs and documents.
“Some children with autism tend to be disorganized, and some have terrible handwriting” Covell continued. The iPad mitigates all that. “Everything’s all in one spot.”
This is particularly helpful in a school environment, where organizational skills are necessary.
But in the context of summer camp, Covell said another benefit is that all kids can use the device, whether it’s for autism-specific purposes or not. This is particularly important for an organization like The Flying Point Foundation, which provides a summer camp model based on the idea of inclusion; in other words, both children with and without autism are invited to participate in its summer programs.
“Kids with autism have particular challenges, so it’s sometimes hard to find things [for them to do] that are on the same social level as their peers,” Covell continued.
But an iPad — which can hold a variety of tools, from apps that enhance communication to entertaining videos that can be seen on YouTube — almost bridges that divide.
“It almost evens the playing field a little bit,” she said.
The only downside at this point, Covell said, is the cost. A basic iPad runs about $500, but some apps (like Proloquo2Go) run $200. In total, Covell said Flying Point has been granted 15 iPads, and some extra funds to purchase relevant apps.
While there most likely won’t be enough devices for each camper to have exclusive access to his or her own, the devices can be used in a shared environment. And, for communication purposes, she added that the lead counselor will have his or her own device which a child will be able to use at times when thoughts are difficult to translate into speech. The camp is able to cater to the needs of children with autism in large part by providing a staff of special education teachers. And because some children require one-on-one care, she said the counselor-to-camper ratio is very low.
While Covell said she is not exactly sure how her foundation will factor the iPads into its tight schedule of rotating day-to-day activities, she imagines the gadgets will largely be used recreationally.
For example, one useful tactic for communicating with children with autism is implementing a “reward” system as an incentive for paying attention and following instructions, Covell said.
“It can be reinforcing,” she explained. “A behavioral program depends a lot on the child getting a reward at the end [of an activity].”
Covell also recently spoke with a special education expert in Southampton who gave some suggestions on how best to implement iPads into the camp’s daily activities.
“We’re probably going to add an iPad section to our daily rotation of activities,” she said. “This will be a great way for the typical kids to work together with the kids that need support, so that they can both learn about this technology and have fun doing it.”
At the end of the summer program, Covell added that Flying Point will donate two iPads to two children who attend the summer program. The donation will be made in conjunction with the child’s school program to ensure that the iPad is both as helpful as possible for the child, but also not a distraction for that child’s teacher.
In fact, Covell said, “If a family acquired an iPad, they would have to sign an agreement that they would be able to use the technology in school.”
“It’s amazing to me, to be able to say that this one device can be used therapeutically, recreationally, educationally, socially and for communication,” Covell said.