Six-year-old Joshua Bruckner looked intently at the iPad on his family’s kitchen table, playing a game of sorting colored beans into colored jars.

With a tiny finger, Josh, a boy adopted from China who has multiple disabilities, stroked the iPad’s touch screen, pushing red beans into red jars, blue into blue.

“Nice work!” the iPad’s recorded voice announced, making the sound of applause every time Josh made the right choice. “Right you are. You’re so smart.”

“I’m so smart!” Josh said, smiling with delight.

Mom Cindy Bruckner said when Josh first started, he only knew two colors. She had tried teaching him colors by posting labels all over the house—“Red” – but it took him a month to catch on.

Yet after using the iPad just a half-dozen times, Josh has learned eight colors, maybe 10, Cindy said. The device is also a hit with her adopted autistic son, Robert, 13, who loves to play educational games on the iPad.

“Robert adores it,” Cindy said. “It’s not the cure for autism, but it is doing amazing things for kids who are nonverbal.”

The iPad was delivered last week by Gary James, a Connecticut father of six kids, including one who is autistic, who founded Apps for Children With Special Needs (a4cwsn). James raised money to give 50 iPads to 50 families in 50 states, and drove around the country to hand them out. Cindy Bruckner applied and won the iPad for Montana to help her two special-needs boys.

“They were very excited” to get the iPad, she said. “I want to get the word out that this can be a very helpful tool.”

There’s something about the iPad that helps autistic and special needs kids, Cindy said. It may be their consistency that helps, or the touch screen, or the fact that kids don’t have to make eye contact, which is difficult for children with autism.

Shawna Heiser, a board-certified behavior analyst whose firm, Special Learning 1 on 1, works with children in the Bozeman area who have autism or behavior disorders, said she has used the iPad in her private practice for more than a year.

Heiser said she has seen children who can’t learn addition or subtraction with pencil and paper, but “you pull up an iPad and immediately they’re more interested … more motivated, more likely to answer.” She has kids who can’t identify letters on flash cards do much better with an iPad.

“It’s pretty fun to see doors unlock for them,” she said.

Heiser cautioned that parents must supervise use and set time limits on the devices, or else kids can just withdraw into their own little iPad world, like any kid with a Game Boy.

“The iPad is a fabulous tool,” Heiser said. “I use it daily with my kids…. It is pretty amazing what they do.”

CBS News’ “60 Minutes” recently reported that iPads are helping people with severe autism make breakthroughs in communication.

But the iPads can be expensive, about $500. The apps or software that runs games or educational programs can be free or cost up to $180. Bruckner said she has found lots of tricks to get apps cheaply.

Cindy and Phil Bruckner had two older adopted children when they decided to adopt Robert. Then 3, Robert had a heart-warming smile but multiple handicaps so severe that 40 families had passed on adopting him. The Bruckners were told Robert would never be above age 2 mentally, never speak, never be potty trained.

But on faith, they went ahead with the adoption, and gathered a team of doctors, behavior specialists and teachers to help him. Today Robert, though held back twice, attends sixth grade at Chief Joseph Middle School.

Robert can be a handful, but Cindy seems to have endless patience, and he’s bright. Playing a trivia game on the iPad that asked about aardvarks, Robert could read and understand words like “herbivorous” and “nocturnal.”

Two years ago, the Bruckners adopted Joshua, a little boy from China with disabilities. As with Robert, Cindy felt touched by his photo posted online, even though he had learning disabilities and extensive port-wine stains on his face, part of birth defect syndrome, which left one arm weak. She was trying to find a family to adopt Josh, when Chinese authorities decided he was unadoptable.

Cindy persisted, and on Dec. 7, 2009, the parents flew with oldest son Ryan to China to meet Josh.

“It was scary,” Cindy said. “We didn’t know if he walked, talked or was blind in one eye.”

Today, Josh, a kindergartner at Whittier School, seemed healthy, bright and cheerful as he played with the iPad.

“He fits with our family very, very well,” Cindy said. “He’s delightful, absolutely delightful.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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