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iPads trigger brain circuits for special-needs kids

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David McArdle makes his living as a pilot for Cummins Inc., but he sees his most important role as father of a 5-year-old, special-needs son.

A brain anomaly has slowed development for Brady McArdle.

Walking, speech and word recognition have all been harder for him to master as he has grown into a curious pre-kindergartner.

But in recent months, McArdle said his son has made significant strides due in large part to computer technology that has captured the little guy’s imagination and helped him learn the sound of letters and the meaning of words.

“Having an iPad has been a huge benefit,” said McArdle, who now hopes to use a charitable group of his own creation — dubbed Tablet Reconnect — to gather donations of used and new tablet computers and e-readers that can be donated to families with other special-needs children in search of an educational boost.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Cummins volunteers will work hand-in-hand with Connected Community Partnership at three collection points to gather tablets and e-readers from donors willing to support a good cause.

Volunteers will provide donors with all the paperwork they need to claim tax deductions for the tablets and readers when they file with the Internal Revenue Service.

“My wife, Cristy, and I have watched how Brady has been helped by technology, and we somehow want to allow other families to get this opportunity,”

McArdle said.

Connected Community is a nonprofit working with Cummins on the special-needs project. It also runs a variety of other programs to connect students and the broader community with technology to boost their learning and careers.

The group already has a system set up to distribute computers to families in Bartholomew County on a first-come, first-served basis after careful scrutiny of their applications. Applications may be submitted at any time and are considered on a rolling basis.

For the special-needs tablets, a child and their parents will be asked to include verification from a child’s teacher or counselor to qualify to receive a tablet or e-reader device.

Brady makes gains

McArdle said he became passionate about getting technology into the hands of more families after watching his son make huge strides in being able to vocalize the sounds of letters, spell words and make simple needs — such as asking for food — understandable.

Brady, who exhibits many of the characteristics of an autistic child, works daily with educational programs and apps on a tablet computer to learn about language and the world around him.

The boy uses an electronic stylus to outline the shapes of letters and learn how they sound.

He uses a touch screen to select letters one by one to form simple words or ask questions such as, “What’s that?”

Or he points to images on the screen that represent simple sentences: “I want a sandwich,” for instance.

“Since using these apps, he forms sounds much better, and he points to and builds words,” his father said.

“Tablets have been such a huge boost to speech therapy and occupational therapy, too,” McArdle said.

As Brady works on his language and developmental skills, his brain is actually rewiring itself to communicate more effectively with the outside world.

“We believe he’ll speak clearly at some point,” McArdle said. “We’ve learned he’s a smart child. His brain is forging new pathways.”

He can arrange numbers from one to 20, recognize shapes and colors and read by joining words highlighted slowly on screen.

McArdle said it took Brady longer than the typical child to walk and gain basic language abilities. But the youngster now has mastered many kindergarten skills as he attends an early childhood development program at Parkside Elementary School. McArdle said he hopes Brady is able to enter kindergarten officially next school year.

“At first, we had no idea what Brady knew. Now, he can spell his name and identify other kids’ written names,” his father pointed out. “It’s wonderful for his mother and I. We know he is learning and picking up on things.”

McArdle said the goal of putting technology in the hands of other families with special-needs children is an important one.

“Technology helps level the playing field,” he said.

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