Our Current Favorite App & Stylus: Zen Brush & Nomad Brush

This is one damn cool stylus, this Nomad Brush Mini with its conductive bristles. We've been using it on Leo's iPad with a variety of drawing and writing apps for a couple of months now: Eazel, GlowColoring (Free), Procreate, Penultimate, and -- our favorite -- Zen Brush.

Every time we break this stylus out in public, folks first get perky over using a brush on an iPad, then ooh and aah when they actually use it -- it's fun and, well, soothing. Especially when used with a really excellent product like the spare, elegant ink brush drawing/painting/writing app Zen Brush.

Leo enjoys goofing around with his Nomad Brush in Zen Brush (above), and the combo makes practicing writing a little bit easier. He can practice his stylus/pen/pencil grip without having to hold a piece of paper in position, and while the stylus glides freely over the iPad's glass surface without any literal drag (video below).

The Zen Brush interface is simple: three ink colors (black, gray, light gray), two eraser colors (white, gray), and a slider for brush size. I've yet to come across a person who didn't get a kick out of using the Nomad Brush/Zen Brush combo -- and I've brought them to several iPad workshops and conferences. Plus, all drawings in Zen Brush look good!

My "is this thing on" experiment
Leo copying me writing "bread"
My eldest's Sugar Glider.
She's a bit obsessed with exotic pets.
Mali's Twin Houses. The girl does have
a keen sense of balance and composition.
LOVE character calligraphy, by an iPad workshop attendee
Self-portrait by Steve Silberman. Love it!

One caveat for each item:
  • The Nomad Brush Mini is tiny. Very tiny. If I don't track it and put it back exactly where it belongs, it vanishes (and in fact I'm in a bit of a panic as I type these words). 
  • Zen Brush has positioned their no-undo, page-clearing trash can icon in the lower right hand corner of the screen. This northpaw has accidentally tapped & deleted several masterpieces.
Other than that, have fun.


Disclosure: I was given our Nomad Brush by a company rep, with no strings attached -- we really do like it that much. I purchased all cited apps.


The TPGA Dialogues Discussed, Part 2

I replied again to the TPGA Dialogues discussion continuing at Julia Roberts's Support for Special Needs, because there's still some not getting it going on. While it is against my non-confrontational nature to get in the middle of such things, this is not about me -- this is about doing the right thing even when it's not easy.

While I don't doubt that Julia will post my comment, those comments are moderated and it might take a bit for this to appear.


Apologies for the delay in replying -- beyond busy these past ten days though I've been thinking about this the whole time, because it's so damn important.

I am all for civil disagreement. I crave it. Anything else is an aversive and makes me wince.

But I also recognize that it is unreasonable to expect people who are oppressed to be civil when discussing that oppression with the people who are oppressing them. We parents who do not ourselves have/share our kids' disabilities know too well how pissed we get when folks treat us and our kids badly, especially when they do so from behind a shield of good intentions. Do we really want to behave that same way towards people who know what it's like to be our kids, and who (in the case of every last adult with autism who wrote for the Dialogues) work so hard to make life better for our kids/people with disabilities?

If we were parenting children of a different sexual orientation or race, I'm guessing very few of us would dismiss the feelings or rights of representatives from our children's community, or get publicly defensive if we were called out for writing something offensive to them if we did so out of ignorance rather than malice. We would listen and learn rather than protest because those communities have established, recognized advocacy movements, and have changed the way most of us think -- to the point where folks who publicly oppose racial equality or LGBT rights look like total assholes.

The rights matters discussed in the Dialogues are no different, but the discussion is younger, and while the Disability Rights movement is long-standing, the Autistic Self-Advocacy movement is just starting. Do we really want to be the opposing assholes cited in the history books? If we aren't ready for, don't have the energy to, aren't able to help, or aren't able to tolerate the unpleasantness that comes with working towards and effecting real social change, can't we just listen without making it about us -- or get out of the way?

This is hard for me to write. I like everyone who wrote for the Dialogues. I always want everyone to get along. And, when I find out people are upset my heart goes out to them -- as it did to Rob Rummel-Hudson when there were real-life repercussions from participating in the Dialogues, and as it did to so many of the participating self-advocates who felt that Robert and other parents continued to justify not listening to and dismissing them.

I am not saying all self-advocates are paragons of righteousness and perfection, or are incapable of making mistakes, or that we non-disabled parents need to listen to every last word they say and can never argue, never have the right to stand up for ourselves. That would be absurd, as it would be to expect self-advocates to view us non-disabled parents the same way. But when the discussions are about what self-advocates want, and what they need, and what they deserve? If we want to be the kind of parents and allies our kids want, need, and deserve, then we need to listen.

Again, I recommend people read the second week of the Dialogues, which would be the top five posts at the following URL, i.e., Day Six through Day Ten: http://thinkingautismguide.blogspot.com/search/label/dialogue.

I also recommend reading Jean Winegardner's excellent essay on the Dialogues, Who Should Lead the Autism Rights Movement:

Update: additional recommended posts from advocates:


Autism: No Matter What, There's Always Trains

Last week was a comet ride, with more activity than I ever imagined could be fit into a mere six days -- it included an intense all-day conference (Hacking Autism's hackathon, more on that on TPGA tomorrow and Wed), meetups (Mali got to meet the excellent Bjorn of Toca Boca, followed by sharing panna cotta with my mom & Sr. Procopster), trips to Carmel to see the amazing Jordan Sadler speak on the intersection of Michelle Garcia Winner social thinking approaches and Unitarian Universalist principals, autism fundraisers (thanks to a furry blue monster), visitors (my mom from SoCal, Floyd & TLC from KY, whee!), inspirational open houses (Leo's), pumpkin patching (Leo's class), helping to finalize the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism manuscript (current heavy lifting by the unbelievably talented Jen Myers), trying to figure out why so many people are behaving badly while getting divorced (not us, not anyone you know, fairly stunned, no comment otherwise), Mali getting suspended from school for not just decking but threatening a fellow student (we will be enacting a behavioral contract with her; bit of irony there, completely on board), Iz touring a local high school so she can make informed choices for next year's transition (!!!!), and birthdays (mine, mostly an afterthought). (I can't even get into what Seymour gets to do for work tomorrow -- mostly because I'm so jealous -- but it's beyond stratospheric.)

Throughout it all -- and as you might imagine there have been schedule changes a-go-go -- Leo has been a good sport, cheerful and adaptable. He's been using great language, been intensely social, has demonstrated unprecedented awareness regarding self-care, and just yesterday upended everything I've been saying during my last few weeks' worth of iPad talks and workshops about him rarely doing non-iPad independent play by doing some fairly awesome non-iPad related independent play: He set up this entire train track by himself, using every last piece of track we own. Pretty damn cool, eh? He even let his godmother TLF play with him. Lovely. Love that boy.


The TPGA Dialogues, Discussed

My friend Julia over at Support for Special Needs wrote a post today called The Silo Effect, which referred to TPGA's Dialogues in the following passage:
"Recently there were some discussions between parent advocates and self advocates in hopes that they might create understanding, a bridge; something that might start the process of working together better as one larger community. In my opinion, that didn’t happen, unfortunately."
I wrote a long comment in response, but as the site moderates its comments, I am running out the door, and I've been meaning to write about The Dialogues anyhow, here's what I said:

The discussions referred to are the Self-Advocate/Parent Dialogues at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, which you can find at http://thinkingautismguide.blogspot.com/search/label/dialogue. I'd recommend people read through the entire series, as the second week brought more synergy and less dissonance than the first.

It has certainly been informative to read how differently readers and participants reacted -- some defensively negative, others thankful and positive; others still processing, pensively. And much good has already come out of the Dialogues, such as actions already being taken in response to self-advocate Zoe's call for a PFLAG-like self-adovocate/parents/allies organization.

I am certainly grateful to everyone who participated in the Dialogues, even if only as a readers. But the Dialogues weren't meant to be a solution, they were meant to be a start. They were absolutely complicated and challenging -- that is what the early stages of social justice and civil rights movements look like.

At the root of the Dialogues was one of the most important questions any person can ask themselves -- if someone asks me to listen to them and take their identity and cause seriously, do I pay attention? Even if what they're saying makes me reassess my own identity and cause, down to the core?

Being a parent of a child with special needs can be a really damn hard, isolating, marathon, sometimes heartbreaking role -- much of those difficulties externally imposed by the educational, medical, social, and legal systems that let us and our children down. It is understandable to be taken aback when someone tells us that we don't have the right to speak for our children, if we've spent so much time as their only ally, against all odds and bureaucracy and prejudice.

What parents need to consider is that  self-advocates are our possible future children. That while our child may not share the same disability -- may not even ever be able to self-advocate -- that is a separate matter from that self-advocate's right to not only have a say but be considered an authority when it comes to disability rights.

So, yes, we should work together, and I appreciate Julia's call for listening, and especially her call for apologizing when we make mistakes -- I'm a mistake-making flag-waver, myself -- But getting to the place where we can do that is going to be hard work, and we've only just started. We need to build cross-communities respect, first.

We TPGA editors are planning to host another Dialogues series, in the spring. Stay tuned.


Making Great Apps for Kids With Autism, Kids Like Leo

I'm going to be spending all today at HP's App Hackathon, the IRL manifestation of their HackingAutism.com project. You can check out the Hacking Autism idea gallery to see apps people have suggested, and you can still add your own thoughts. As you might imagine, I have a few app ideas of my own -- how about a game based on Stephen Shore's excellent Using a Public Bathroom video? Leo would love it, and it would be fun, educational, and appeal to not just Leo but ten-year-old boys the world over.

I was initially invited to the Hackathon to give a talk, but apparently the developers decided at the last minute that they don't want to hear about why they should be hacking -- they just want to get to the hacking! So I'll be there as a parent resource and as a blogger.

But because I already wrote up the slides for my talk, I'll slap those bullets up here. This is what I want the Hackathoners to know about developing apps for kids like Leo:

How Apps Expand Learning and Leisure Opportunities for People With Autism
  • Independent learning and leisure can be a challenge for kids like Leo – and he deserves to play! 
  • Apps are motivating and dynamic: they have audio, visuals 
  • Great content and ideas are useless without a straightforward user interface
Why Apps Work for Leo 
  • No cursor analogy - direct touch screen
  • Fine motor ease: stylus, mouse not required
  • Replace backpacks and cupboards of activities
  • Learn independently, or with support
  • Incidental, interstitial learning 
What Helpful Apps Do
  • Simplify, focus – break learning down into discrete chunks 
  • Support literacy but don’t require it 
  • Avoid nested, cluttered, text-heavy interfaces 
  • Use reinforcing audio, visual cues 
Ideal App User Interfaces
(Adapted from Injini.net's results from beta-testing their very recommended Injini app suite with children with autism)

  • To keep children with autism engaged, apps need:
    • Consistency 
    • Predictability 
    • Simplicity 
    • Visual cues, structure 
  • Clearly defined, consistent beginnings and endings:
    • Support learning
    • Ease transition anxiety
 Elegant does not mean perfect or polished! It means simple and straightforward.
    Collage/art app Faces iMake: one of my very favorite, easy-for-Leo-to-use UIs


Mali App Demo: Toca Robot Lab

Mali's and Leo's Toca Boca app fandom has been recognized, as you can see by the excellent Toca Boca tee she's sporting in the video below. Malil is demonstrating one of the apps she has in heavy rotation, Toca Robot Lab -- which lets her create robots and then guide them through mazes before they are dispatched to the great robot unknown.

Once again, our thanks to Toca Boca for making motivating, easy-to-use apps!

We are grateful to Toca Boca for gifting our family this app (and the t-shirt) but the opinions expressed in this space are ours and ours alone. As always, we only review the apps we consider worth reviewing -- though we have a sizeable app review backlog.

Cetacean Carcasses in Cutouts (Rah for Child-Friendly Radiolab)

The kids and I have been listening to a lot of Radiolab podcasts on the iPad, in the car*. It remains my favorite non-KQED-produced public media show. If you're not already a listener, then, to paraphrase co-host Robert Krulwich, "I pity you for how much you don't yet know."

This video, inspired by the episode Loops, "is an intricate world of paper cutouts to illustrate the different stages a whale carcass goes through after dropping to the bottom of the ocean." I especially appreciate the elegant representation of flowing hagfish mucus.

Can't wait to show the kids when they get home today!

*Parents might want to pre-screen episodes for occasional disturbing and/or adult-themed content.


Thanking Steve Jobs on Leo's Behalf

We lost Steve Jobs today.

Every last reader of this site knows what the vision and technology shepherded by Steve Jobs means to Leo. Apple's iPad gives my son independence he's never had before; Apple's iPad: Year One video, which Steve introduced at the Apple iPad 2 launch in March, showed the entire world that people with autism need only the right opportunities and tools to show how much ass they can kick.

Rumor has it Mr. Jobs particularly liked the autism segment of the iPad video. It's nice to think that one of our boy's achievements has been to meet those lofty standards.

Thank you, Steve. From Leo and his entire family.


Leo's Music Session With Stephen Shore

Life balance is a struggle for me. Too little to do, and I get depressed and sink into torpor. Too much going on, and I become an overtaxed human lightbulb -- bystanders can practically see my internal filaments pop. But sometimes, the too-busy is absolutely, 100% worth frying my brain -- especially if it means securing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Leo. For instance, the chance to have Stephen Shore come to our house for a music session.

Stephen and I met at IMFAR this past May, and chatted briefly about how I've never found a way to formally support Leo's innate musical abilities. (Stephen, a talented musician and music teacher, believes music is important for people with autism [free iTunes link #19] -- not just because it's fulfilling and entertaining, but because it's a real-world skill.) Stephen said we should bring Leo out to New York for lessons, and I laughed wistfully -- Leo hasn't been able to tolerate a plane flight more than 90 minutes long for over four years, though he's working on it.

Then I found out that Stephen and I would both be speaking at last Saturday's Morgan Autism Center conference, so I reached out and asked if he would come over for a session with Leo. Stephen said yes. I did a Snoopy dance.

Photo (c) Steve Silberman
If you've not met Stephen or heard him talk, he is one of the kindest men you'll ever encounter (though that doesn't mean he won't tease a person for overladling the 50 cent words, ahem). And patient. And he really, really understood how to work with Leo (though I will admit to hovering; I'm not used to people "getting" Leo so quickly). Using a method he developed, Stephen really, truly helped Leo start to identify keys on the piano. Were we to somehow have Stephen and Leo work together again -- or train another music instructor in Stephen's method -- I believe Leo would be have a real chance to play the piano and read music.

Stephen loves to travel, and said he'd be up for teaching workshops or college courses in the Bay  Area and then fitting in lessons for Leo, so if anyone knows a local college that would be interested in having Stephen guest lecture or teach a short summer intensive course or workshop, please speak up! (During his MAC conference lecture, Stephen noted that he travels so much by air because he's a sensory seeker -- takeoffs and turbulence are especially satisfying.)

Photo (c) Steve Silberman
I was not able to manage the busyness of Friday all on my own; there are children all over kingdom come to retrieve every day, and those retrieval time were during the only window that worked for Leo's and Stephen's music session -- so thank heavens Jen Myers volunteered to get my girls from school. Which meant, yay!, she got to meet Mr. Shore as well (and also Mr. Silberman, who tends to stay in the background and observe while somehow managing to be the opposite of shy and retiring -- potently great company). We all got to hear Stephen play Tumbalaika (though Mali interrupted him to play Old Mac Donald Had a Farm, which he graciously allowed), and then listen to Stephen's explanation of how he does sensory overload simulations during his workshops:

And then Stephen, Seymour and I needed to head back south for the MAC Conference dinner, where Stephen (once again, graciously) allowed me to hide out with him when my ineptitude at small talk threatened to send me into full-blown panic -- unless I was talking with Joanna Jaeger, who had lots of good advice about older boys with autism and autism siblings, and was happy to talk about vintage musicals.

A sincere thank you to Stephen for his expertise, generosity, and amiability. This world is a much better place with you in it.

Stephen's website, where you can buy his books and videos, is at www.autismasperger.net.


Leo and His iPad on ABC TV

You may or may not have heard, but last week Leo and I were featured in a local ABC News (KGO) story, "Autism Community Sees Promise in iPad Apps." Leo is adorable and demonstrates his iPad smarts, as usual, and I got to demonstrate some of the funny faces my husband says I make all the time but which I never see -- on TV. (Bonus: Can you tell I dyed my hair about an hour before my interview took place?) I thought the story did an excellent job of talking about how iPads can support kids like Leo, and staying positive:

Reporter Lyanne Melendez published the story the night before the Morgan Autism Center conference, as she promised she would -- so I was tickled when a woman came up to me after my MAC conference iPad workshop and told me she was there specifically because she saw the ABC iPad story. (One) mission accomplished!

Very grateful to the wonderful Joanna Jaeger of Parents Helping Parents in San Jose, who set the interviews up.


The other happenings of this past Friday and Saturday were so incredibly jam-packed with noteworthiness that I'm going to have to parcel it out -- the end of the TPGA Dialogues, Leo getting a music session with Stephen Shore, the MAC conference dinner, and the brain-poppingly, influentially informative MAC conference itself. Nothing else exciting had better happen in the next few days!