iPhone Life magazine

Children with Special Needs

The built-in capabilities of the iPhone and iPod touch can help special needs children and their parents

LillieMy daughter Lillie was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disease that poses a variety of challenges and affects each child’s development differently. Lillie has extreme difficulty controlling her muscles, which limits her ability to hold her own bottle or a stuffed animal. The best treatment for my daughter, at her current age and state of development, is physical and occupational therapy along with constant and repetitive cognitive sensory stimulation. One of our goals is to use Lillie’s decision-making processes to enhance our communication with her. For example, when Lillie started making choices about the music she wanted to listen to, she was communicating her desires to us. This is where the iPhone and iPod touch came in handy.

Importance of music

Children with special needs are drawn to music. Music calms them, gets them excited, makes them sing, and gets them to make decisions while increasing their cognitive ability. We take Lillie to therapy three times a week and every time we come armed with her iPod touch and my iPhone. (She must be one of the few toddlers with her own iPod touch.) We created multiple playlists for Lillie: one for nursery rhymes, another with soothing songs for naptime, a robust playlist mix with everything from Opera to Bob Marley, and more. We discovered that we needed to offer her a wide variety of music—she would let us know what she didn’t like. It was amazing how, after a while, Lillie started associating different playlists with different events in her daily schedule. This is particularly important for children with special needs because structure, familiarity, and repetition make them feel safe and at ease.

Decisions and communication

Since Lillie cannot speak yet, she communicates which songs she likes or dislikes by crying and smiling. This may seem simple, but the making of these decisions is a huge step in her ability to communicate with us. In addition, having the music she likes available to her on an iPod touch really calms and relaxes Lillie at therapy sessions. This makes her therapists’ work easier and more effective. They can focus on working with Lillie rather than trying to think of different songs to sing in order to calm her down. (Interestingly, Lillie would rather listen to Bob Marley’s Jamming than The Wheels on the Bus, and she loves music from members of The Rat Pack.)

Lisa Crilly is Lillie’s physical therapist and pediatric clinical specialist, and Lisa agrees about the value of music…and the iPod touch. “Obviously, the value of music in development is huge. The iPod touch not only provides music, but it provides endless variations without the need for bulky equipment. Children with special needs are often given augmentative devices for communication, and in the past these have been quite large and cumbersome. These same devices can be used within a session to provide music and a means to communicate a child’s desires to loved ones. Obviously, the iPod touch would do all this using only one piece of equipment.”

Affordable all-in-one device

The expense associated with anything related to special needs children is frightening, and it’s almost criminal what vendors charge for related braces, toys, and communication devices. In addition, these communication devices have limited capabilities and, as mentioned, are extremely bulky. The iPhone and iPod touch are open systems and their capabilities can be enhanced with free or inexpensive third-party apps. And compared to the cost of dedicated communications devices, a low-end iPhone or iPod touch is a bargain.

Benefits of an iPhone or iPod touch

  • Affordability: $99 to $399 (plus wireless service contract for the iPhone); some third-party apps are free; others are priced very reasonably ($0.99 and up).
  • Portability: Device easily fits in a purse, pocket, kid cart, etc.
  • Easy to use: The interface on the device and many third-party apps is very simple.
  • Touch screen interface: Encourages “cause and effect” activities.

One device, multiple uses

The portability and size of the iPhone and iPod touch make it the ideal device to take with you to the doctor or therapist’s office, or when you’re dining out, shopping, traveling, visiting family and friends, and more. And the built-in capabilities of these devices come in handy. For example, I use my iPhone’s camera to take photos of Lillie’s successes during her visits to her therapist. I use Mail to send these photos to my wife, family, and friends to keep them updated on her progress. And with the 3GS’s video capability, I can now shoot and trim short movies of Lillie’s progress and attach them to an e-mail for all to see. Finally, and as mentioned earlier, the iPhone’s music player is a great way to communicate, stimulate, soothe, and calm down children with special needs. This seems an obvious use to me, but I’m surprised by the number of parents with special needs children and iPhones that have never thought about doing this.

Wherever Lillie goes…

My wife and I would be in big trouble if it weren’t for our iPhone and iPod touch. Whether we take Lillie out shopping, go out to eat, travel in the car, go for a walk, or visit our family and friends, one of these devices is always at our side.

This article focused on the built-in capabilities of the iPhone and iPod touch. In a future issue, I’ll review some of the apps created specifically for children with special needs. I’ll also look at a few that weren’t, but can be very useful.

In the meantime, I’d like to collect and post stories about parents who use the iPhone or iPod touch to further enrich the life of their special needs child. You can e-mail them to me here (kevin@sitekstudios.com) along with any questions or suggestions you have. I’ll post some of these stories on my iPhone Life blog (iphonelife.com/kevin_sitek).