Every morning, Addy Grace Wilson rises early before school.
And like most children, after getting dressed, she makes a mad dash for her iPad.
For many, this could be written off as simply tech addiction. But for 4-year-old Addy Grace, it's her lifeline.
Addy Grace Wilson, 4, of Martins Ferry, suffers from autism and Mitochondrial Dysfunction (MtD). As a result, her cognitive skills and muscular abilities began to diminish, also affecting her ability to communicate. A new iPad app called AutisMate has allowed Addy to communicate with her parents. AutisMate combines visual scene displays for communication and functional task assistance, multiple grid layouts, as well as visual schedules and visual stories, that provides a unique tool for autism. The app can also be customized to focus on scenes, videos, models and schedules that are appropriate for the learner.
For a non-verbal child in a verbal world, it's her main means of communication with her family and those around her.
The daughter of Brenda and Brett Wilson of Martins Ferry, Addy Grace suffers from autism and Mitochondrial Dysfunction (MtD).
She was first diagnosed after her parents noted her pulling away from them, from life even, after her one-year-old well visit.
Her cognitive and muscular abilities immediately began to retrograde from other developing toddlers her age.
Once diagnosed, she began receiving therapy and educational services from the Augusta Levy Learning Center in Wheeling.
Slowly but surely, little Addy Grace began coming back to her parents. Her cognitive functioning has improved, as has her strength and coordination.
But so far, Addy Grace still lacks the ability to communicate - albeit verbally.
A therapist at August Levy turned the Wilsons on to a particular app called AutisMate, available on the Apple platform.
"Originally the app, I believe, ran for about $150, but it had gone on sale for around $50," Brenda Wilson said. "It was a Black Friday special and we jumped on it. Initially, it's a lot of money, especially adding in the cost of the iPad itself, but well worth the cost in the long run."
AutisMate's comprehensive approach encourages the user to develop communication and behavioral skills simultaneously, allowing each skill to build on the other while being personalized to each user.
It has the ability to progress with the user's changing needs. Its features include: visual scenes that can be personalized for each user, functioning as a scene-based augmentative and alternative communication device; a full-sentence builder (grid-based AAC); video modeling; visual scheduling and other features.
Basically, it allows Addy Grace to communicate her thoughts, her wants and wishes, despite lacking the vocal ability to do so.
"As a parent of a non-verbal child with autism, it can be very frustrating when you cannot communicate with your child day in and out, especially when you know there is more in there somewhere," Brenda said. "There is so much they want to tell you, but can't. That is what the iPad and this app does. It finds a way to get it out."
The Wilsons took full advantage of the app's built-in tutorial, making sure they set it up as best as possible for ease of use for their daughter.
It took them a few days. They wanted to make sure every item Addy could want, every possible feeling she might have, could be cataloged and displayed as an option.
"We were able to get very extensive because the app has the ability to include pics of every room in the house," Brenda said. "So, of course, we started in her playroom since that's where she spends the majority of her time.
"We were able to take a picture of the entire room, labeling things like her book shelf and toy box."
Not stopping there, the app has the ability for the user to, say, open the book shelf and select from every item in the box. The same goes for the books.
Prior to using the iPad, Addy Grace's therapists introduced her to a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which is basically a handmade version of the app.
It took Addy Grace a bit of effort to get used to using the iPad as, at first, she didn't have the ability to point consistently. But with lots of practice and therapy, it finally clicked and she was on her way.
She studies the app independently as well, scanning through all of its choices and learning the words for the items she selects, as the app also has a voice component.
Soon, she realized that it wasn't just pictures, but her tool to communicate.
"She realized she could tap on a picture of her wagon and it would say 'I want to go for a wagon ride'," Brenda explained. "She understood that this device was going to help her get what she wanted."
Brenda recalls the day Addy Grace tapped on her mother's picture and heard "mama." She sat there, tapping her mom's picture over and over again with the biggest smile on her face. She had finally put it all together.
The unnecessary tantrums soon went away. If Addy Grace gets upset or frustrated, she can now express her feelings. When that wasn't an option, her frustration would only grown because of the inability to communicate.
Brenda has heard the questions about whether this will become a crutch, and the use of speech that she and her husband long to hear from their daughter will be further delayed.
"It will not," Brenda said. "I was worried about that as well, but she has therapies that specifically target her speech.
"This is just something to help her along the way. In fact, she is making gains with making many sounds."
"This has been a God-send for us. It will never take the place of her actually talking, but right now, this is her voice. Every day, she is showing more and more of who she is."
Brenda Wilson is thankful for the generosity of the many people who've helped Addy Grace along the way. From donations to advice and suggestions, her doctors and the August Levy staff, many have assisted in Addy Grace's return from near the brink.
She recommends this app to any parent who is working through a similar situation. Her daughter is a perfect example of how well it can work.
"There are many resources available out there that could help you purchase this, even grants you can apply for that are for children with autism.
"If this has helped Addy, so many others could benefit as well. It's just a matter of finding it."
Brenda noted one great resource that she's found is ACT Today, a group that is "wonderful about providing grants to help pay for these things for kids on the (autism) spectrum."
For more information on the app, go to www.autismate.com. To learn more about Addy Grace and her journey, visit her Facebook page which can be found by searching for "For the Love of Addy Grace."