Monday, September 7, 2009

One year later, Project Lifesaver still keeping people safe

It’s an all-too-common reality for some — a loved one with special needs wanders off.

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is providing reassurance for dozens of families in Dane County — like the O’Leary family of McFarland.

Aidan O’Leary is an energetic, inquisitive 7-year-old. He also has a tendency to wander.

“He could hide in places, go into an empty car, go in someone’s garage,” said Lisa O’Leary, mother. “He would go with a stranger. We could be walking down the street and he slips out of my arm and he’d be in the parking lot and go right in front of a car.”

Aidan was diagnosed with autism at age 3. When his family heard about Project Lifesaver, they were one of the first to sign up. Aidan wears a one-ounce GPS tracker on his ankle, which emits a signal every second, 24 hours a day.

“From day one, he has not tried to fidget with the device, or try to get it off at all,” Lisa said. “It was basically like wearing another sock.”

Aidan’s parents check the gps battery battery twice a day, and enter it in a log book. They’re one of 26 families in Dane County who use Project Lifesaver — families dealing with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and down syndrome.

“You’re keeping track of them 24 hours, you’re eyes are always on them, but somehow you turn your head and they can be gone,” Lisa said.

Aidan’s mother never stops worrying, she says, but if her son ever went missing, she’d know where to look.

“It’s so reassuring to know that if he’s lost, we can find him.”

Project Lifesaver is completely funded thru donations. Otherwise it would cost families $300 per year.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Autism group probes why children love Thomas the Tank Engine

The simple stories and clear facial expressions of the Thomas the Tank Engine characters have made them a favourite among children with autism, according to a study by the U.K. National Autistic Society.

Thomas the Tank Engine, written in 1943 by Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry, is a perennial favourite among all the under-four set, especially for boys who love trains.

But it appears to have particular appeal to autistic children, with 58 per cent of parents in an April 2007 survey reporting that Thomas was the first children's character their child enjoyed.

Most of the children discovered Thomas & Friends through the television show based on the characters, but then moved on to Thomas toys, videos and books.

Among autistic children, who often have a narrow range of behaviours, Thomas-related play was often their favourite activity, with children repeatedly watching the videos and reenacting whole scenes, including dialogue, with the toys.

"Thomas & Friends is 100 per cent responsible for getting him talking. Thomas was his life," said one parent of a nine-year-old, according to the NAS survey.

About a third of parents reported their children were able to learn basic facial expressions from the characters, as all of Thomas's friends have easy-to-read expressions — they are either happy, sad or angry.

Children with autism often have trouble decoding human expressions.

"He definitely uses the train faces to distinguish between different emotions. Thomas has helped him to get into the world of not just language but also how people feel," said another parent.

Parents also believed the characters contributed to their children's learning of colours, numbers and language.

The gentle world of Thomas & Friends, in which characters behave predictably, helped to calm some autistic children, with 54 per cent of parents reporting the stories contributed to their child's sense of security.

Children with autism enjoyed the Thomas stories and characters up to two years longer than siblings who didn't have the disorder.

The survey was answered by 748 U.K. parents of children under 10 with autism, a developmental disability.

Thomas the Tank Engine stories have been voiced by Ringo Starr and George Carlin and a new version of the TV series will feature the voice of Pierce Brosnan.