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Combining autism therapy and technology

Brandon Tomkins uses the iPad in his therapy session Brandon Tomkins uses the iPad in his therapy session

Autism therapy and technology are combined at one Dubuque clinic.

It's called Unified Therapy Services, and it employs technology such as iPad apps and the Xbox Kinect in its therapy for kids.

Eight-year-old Brandon Tomkins and his mom Connie Fuerstenberg come to Unified Therapy Services twice a week. Both Brandon and his sister have autism.

"I think they understand the abstract of technology better than they understand the abstracts of communication," Fuerstenberg said. "Like, knowing how to read people is difficult for them, versus knowing how to put a puzzle together or go on the computer, even with a mouse and going through the Internet, is easy."

With the help of one of the clinic's iPads, Brandon is working on basic skills, such as identifying letters.

Tanya Musselman is Unified Therapy Services' rehab director and said that technology makes therapy come alive in ways that simple worksheets cannot.

"It is motivating. It's fun," she said. "You can be fun with pencil and paper, but the apps that are out nowadays and all, it's just taken it to a whole new level."

iPad apps aren't the only use of technology in therapy at the clinic. Laptops allow patients to access emotional recognition programs on the Internet. An Xbox Kinect helps kids with gross motor skills. Those and all the other forms of technology utilized in therapy help equip kids for daily life, occupational therapist Maggie Burnworth said.

"Zippering, buttoning -- If your kids can't do their pants at school, that's hard. And if they can do that as a game, it's going to help them practice that skill anyway," she said.

Parents with iPads or iPod Touches can find these apps to use at home.

"If you Google it, research it, you'll see: autism apps," Musselman said.

Fuerstenberg said she can see a difference in Brandon, even after less than the three months he's been in Unified Therapy Services' technology-infused clinic.

"He'll look you right in the eye now, he'll say, 'hi,' and he says, 'bye,'" she said.

It's a big step for this boy with autism.

Unified Therapy Services offers free screenings. It also lists useful iPad apps for kids with autism on its Facebook page.

In September, President Obama signed into law the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act of 2011. That extends the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which allocates funds to autism research, screening, intervention and education.

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