Big-hearted community rallies round to help Charlie

Charlie Hamilton (6) from Coldstream getting to grips with his new iPad bought after the local community donated old mobile phones to fund it,
Charlie Hamilton (6) from Coldstream getting to grips with his new iPad bought after the local community donated old mobile phones to fund it,

In January we asked for your old mobile phones so the charity Hearts and Minds could swap them for an iPad for an autistic Coldstream boy - and how you answered that call!

Charlie Hamilton’s mum Lauren and his head teacher at Coldstream Primary School, Moira Hall, hoped to collect 150 old mobiles, which would have been enough for one iPad, and they were overwhelmed when 760 phones were handed in within seven weeks.

It was the largest single collection Hearts and Minds has ever had and Coldstream Primary School will be getting three iPads from the charity, plus £75 in iTunes vouchers to buy more educational apps. One generous donor bought Charlie Hamilton an iPad outright so he could start working with it straight away,

Your generosity in supplying so many old mobile phones means that the primary school will have an iPad for its butterfly room, which provides extra help for children with learning difficulties. The school has two children about to start, whose first language isn’t English and they will have use of the iPads to help them communicate initially.

“What we are looking for for the butterfly room is an app similar to what Charlie is using,” said Mrs Hall. “There are so many apps available now that we can use to help children in the support base.

“After Lauren and I started talking about this I was in Edinburgh in ‘Pets and Home’ and staff were using them. The girl who served us was deaf and dumb and it was then that I realised they were using them as a communication tool.

“It’s about not just using one thing but giving Charlie options in how to communicate. And he is good at it. He enjoys the computer and his brain is geared for technology.”

Six-year-old Charlie has pre-verbal autism and is unable to talk but would already put many of us to shame with his iPad skills and his ability to remember number sequences. Now with the prospect of newly developed apps for the iPad to help him communicate, life could soon become a lot easier for him.

An NHS Borders speech therapist is due to assess Charlie next week to determine which of the new apps, specially designed to help children like Charlie, will best suit his needs.

And while Lauren has been warned that it is unlikely that Charlie will ever speak and both she and Mrs Hall are being cautious in their expectation of how much the new iPad apps can help in that direction, there is still a glimmer of hope that one day he will be able to communicate verbally.

Charlie is already starting to make more verbal sounds, possibly copying is 10 month old younger brother. And if the recently developed Edinburgh University app FindMe, designed to engage non-verbal autistic children, proves to be suitable for Charlie his chances of speaking may improve further.

The impact FindMe has had on the small number of children who have used it so far suggests that it is a simple and effective way to help children like Charlie.

“If he speaks it’s a bonus but it is going to help him communicate with other children,” said Lauren.

The results of trials using iPads and app programmes such as FindMe convinced the Hearts and Minds charity that they helped develop language, motor and problem solving skills of children with autism which is why they opened up the scheme for schools to apply for an iPad from them by collecting old mobile phones.

One testimonial on the Hearts and Minds website after a child with autism used the FindMe app shows just what a difference it can make: ‘Three weeks after getting the iPad Padraig started trying to say words he was hearing while using it. He had never tried to speak before.’

Similar research in America suggests that it is the consistency of a language-teaching iPad app that helps non-verbal children with autism pick up new words.

Professor Ann Kaiser who carried out the American research said: “When we say a word it sounds a little different every time, and words blend together and take on slightly different acoustic characteristics in different contexts. Every time the iPad says a word, it sounds exactly the same, which is important for children with autism, who generally need things to be as consistent as possible.”

“During the programme, we witnessed one child communicate his understanding of addition; the parents were completely unaware that their child even knew his numbers at all.”

Some experts question whether being able to communicate via the iPad will mean Charlie makes less effort to communicate verbally, but his mum, head teacher and additional needs assistant Ann, who spends the school day with him, don’t see it as a negative.

“They said that about using sign language, but Charlie can pick up the symbols and the other children have also learnt basic sign language,” said Mrs Hall, who believes they should use every tool available for Charlie to make himself understood by others.

For Lauren an unexpected bonus of the appeal has been a greater understanding by members of the public about Charlie’s condition:“People have come up to me and said they didn’t realise about Charlie’s condition. It has helped with people’s understanding and has just raised the awareness.”