Mother sets out to buy iPads for other autistic children

Scott Hilyard

Tara Oathout couldn't believe it. Her son, Grady Oathout, who will turn 4 in August, was asking for fruit after just getting back to grandma's house after lunch at a restaurant, where he had eaten more than anybody at the table.

"He's always hungry," said Tara Oathout as she walked into the kitchen to fetch him something to eat. "Amazing."

Actually, it was amazing, but not only because he wanted more food so soon after a big lunch. Grady, who has autism, didn't ask his mommy for a banana in the conventional way –– by activating the anatomical mechanisms that produce human speech –– because Grady doesn't talk. Instead, he asked by using his Apple iPad.

"How about a banana?" Tara Oathout asked, offering a chunk to Grady.

He smiled, pushed the banana into his mouth and instantly returned to the electronic device that has, in ways both large and small, opened lines of communication that those who love him once feared were closed off for life.

"From the moment you know you're pregnant, you have a dream for your children –– what they will experience, what they will accomplish. Autism takes a huge chunk out of that dream," Tara Oathout said. "For us, the iPad brings some of that dream back. It's as much for me as it is for him."

The profound transformation in the Oathout household, as Grady slowly began to reveal his thoughts and feelings via his iPad, triggered a transformation in Tara Oathout herself. She is now dedicated to getting the same device in the hands of other families like her own –– families who are struggling with the often overwhelming burdens, challenges, costs and mysteries that a child with autism brings into a home.

"I want other people to experience what we have experienced," Tara Oathout said.

She has created an online support group called Loud Mommy,, which is subtitled “A loud voice for a silent world.” She is also planning a local musical revue fundraiser. If both her shows sell out, she can buy five iPads for qualified families.

"That's just the start," Tara Oathout said. "I'd like to grow this into something big."

It has been a tumultuous five years for Tara and her husband, Floyd Oathout. They were married in 2005, lived for a while in Princeville, Ill., and then moved again to Sparland, Ill., in what is called the Octagon House, a unique eight-sided brick home built in 1886 that is now registered in the National Register of Historic places. In serious disrepair, they bought the house for $16,000 and are slowly working to fix it up.

"We were looking at apartments, trailers, trailer parks –– anything we could afford," Tara said. "Then this showed up, and we were off on an adventure."

Grady was born nine weeks premature on Aug. 6, 2007, weighing 3 pounds, 14 ounces. When Tara first saw her son, the ignition turned on her newly developed mother's intuition, and a thought that she wouldn't share flickered in her mind: Grady's not 100 percent OK.

Months passed and his development stalled. At 18 months, he was still not speaking, and he was exhibiting several classic traits of autism: spinning, flapping his hands, staring for long periods at lights and ceiling fans.

The couple had Grady assessed, and the word "autism" crept into the conversation. The day after his second birthday, Grady was diagnosed with autism, a complex developmental disorder of varying severity that now affects on average one child out of every 110 births in the United States.

Tara, who turned 25 last week, immersed herself in treatments and therapies and in loving a child who would not love her back. Through her research, she learned that families were having success communicating with autistic children via an iPad.

Tara wanted one, but the cost, about $800 with the software she wanted, was prohibitive. The family was living paycheck to paycheck, yet Floyd was earning slightly more than the cut-off point to qualify to receive an iPad from a national program that was subsidizing the cost for needy families.

Undeterred and relentlessly resourceful, she posted a picture of Grady and her story on a fundraising Web tool run by Facebook. She received enough money to buy an iPad in 48 hours.

"Money came from across the United States and around the world," she said. "It was incredible."

With the iPad in hand, Grady's vocabulary moved almost immediately from zero words to 10 with the use of software called iCommunicate. The program is an electronic version of a therapy regimen called Picture Exchange Communication System. It's a series of simple drawings; iCommunicate offers more than 10,000 different images that can help people who have trouble communicating locate and point to an image on the touch screen. The pictures illustrate a feeling, a need or any of a wide range of other expressions.

Grady is already an expert at navigating the touch screen, and too much of an expert in one area –– they had to disable the YouTube app because he was fixated on looking at Mario from the Super Mario Bros. video games. Somehow, the 3-year-old learned how to spell M-A-R-I-O to access videos.

"Before the iPad, he was nonverbal and showed little emotion," Tara Oathout said. "Now I get hugs and kisses."

Tara was asked by the Peoria Center of Easter Seals in Illinois, a place she knows well because Grady receives therapy there, to train other families on the use of the iPad as a communication tool.

"We have one iPad of our own in our autism resource room, and, obviously, Tara is very familiar with what it can do," said April Leopold, the director of developmental and autism services at Easter Seals. "She connects with families because she lives it herself, and getting iPads to people who need them has become her ministry. She's awesome."

Though no study has been completed on the value of the iPad as a communication tool for people with autism, anecdotal reports abound.

"Children with autism usually love electronics, so it makes sense that an iPad would be interesting and fun for them," Leopold said. "Moms can just flip it in a purse and have it available when they're in the waiting room at the doctor's office or anywhere they happen to be. There's no research, but it seems like it's a valuable tool."

The Illinois Assistive Technology Project has iPads that it loans to families for about a month to see if it is something they would like to purchase. Currently, there is a 43-family waiting list, Leopold said.

"What Tara is trying to do is get them to people who otherwise couldn't afford them," she said.

Meanwhile, through all of this, Tara Oathout has been experiencing serious health issues of her own. In April 2008, she suffered the first of five strokes, and it took nearly a year to find a diagnosis –– a blood clotting disorder and an autoimmune disease called mixed connective tissue disease. In that time, she also had hysterectomy surgery, which makes Grady the only natural child she will ever bear.

There have been signs along the way that Tara Oathout interprets as proof that she is on the right path. She learned she was wanted as a volunteer at Easter Seals on her 25th birthday, big news on a big day. The only weekend dates available for the musical revue fundraiser was April 1 and 2, which happens to coincide with Autism Awareness month. The only weekend date available to use the Peoria riverfront for a 5-K race fundraiser was Aug. 6, Grady's fourth birthday.

"I was always stressed over what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always wanted to know, and it just wasn't coming to me," said Tara Oathout, who was home-schooled along with her sisters by their mother, Nanette Smite, Grady's adoring grandmother. "I went to beauty school, got married young and had a baby at a young age. But I didn't know my purpose."

Now she does.

"I want to be the mom of my autistic son," she said. "And I want to help other people."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at