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Click - and a disabled boy is captivated by a story's magic

At a unit for children with head injuries, multimedia stories are helping put pupils on the path to recovery. Valerie Hall reports.

Like any 14-year-old boy, Ian is football crazy and cannot concentrate on anything for more than two minutes but, unlike most, he has a head injury and has limited mobility. Finding something to absorb him is even more of a challenge.

His day in a head-injury rehabilitation unit is filled with therapy - occupational, physio and language - but staff have discovered that nothing motivates him so much as sitting at a multimedia computer playing with interactive, animated storybooks.

Ian Wright (to give him the name of his favourite Arsenal footballer) is fortunate to have one of the 10 beds in this unit at The Children's Trust, Tadworth, Surrey, as there are only 21 in the country. Nestling in beautiful parkland, the unit cares for children who have had severe head injuries, usually in car accidents. On average, they stay nine months to a year and all make progress. The atmosphere is cheerful and positive and half the staff are volunteers, dedicated to giving the children the individual attention they need.

On my visit, the tiny computer room resounds for more than half an hour to Ian's guffaws. With his good hand, he clicks on animals and objects within Ruff's Bone and Aesop's The Tortoise and the Hare to bring out the hidden surprises. The software for the books has been donated by Living Books. As golfballs explode and a maggot devours an apple, Jon Nuth, cognitive remediation assistant, explained: "He knows they're for a younger age group, but he responds to the humour in them." A rapping beaver beating on tree-trunk bongos and a frog playing double-bass on a pelican's legs provoke loud chuckles.

Jon added: "With these children, the short-term memory, attention and organisational skills have been disrupted to varying degrees. Some disabilities are quite hidden, but they have a profound effect on children's ability to get, and to be, independent. This software is superb for them as there is so much we can do with it and it is very motivating, simple to use and rewarding - click on an icon and something colourful and amusing pops up. Most of our children are able to access it by using a mouse, joystick or tracker ball, and, if not, they listen to the story and a therapist makes the choices for them."

His colleague, Andrea (Andy) Chaman-Smith, a recreational therapist and rehabilitation co-ordinator, demonstrated how children with limited physical abilities can use a computer by plugging in a tracking system produced by Scope's Microtechnology Services. The switches can be used instead of a mouse.

"One child, who has severe spasms throughout her body, uses head switches to operate the computer and manoeuvre her wheelchair," Andy explained.

Living Books heard about the unit through a Children's Head Injury Trust awareness week in the summer. The trust had already donated a Compaq Presario computer, so the software company sent four storybooks. "We pounced on them as a child's father had recently brought one in to try and all the children wanted a go," said Andy.

All the therapists have found that a couple of sessions a week has enhanced their work with the children. The clicking and pointing helps to improve accuracy and highlighting individual words is useful for language development, as is making it known what they want the therapist to click on: "One boy improves his word-finding by trying to say what he wants, or by using Makaton signing (a sign language using words and symbols)," said Andy.

Decision-making and problem-solving are also improved. "Many find it extremely difficult to make choices between two things and there can be long delays, " she said. "This encourages them to choose more quickly between several or to decide, say, what is likely to happen if the bone falls from that tree. "

Jon Nuth adds: "It also helps their visual scanning and makes them pay more attention to detail. They're so busy seeing what else they can find, they rarely get to the end of the story."

"One of our problems is finding age-appropriate materials, but the storybooks get us over that hump because they are amusing," said Andy.

They hope that Living Books will produce titles for an older age group with more problem-solving. They have noticed that the children prefer adult voices. "They are not so keen on Grandma and Me, for example, which has children's voices," said Andy.

The last word goes to Ian. Despite his voice synthesiser being broken, when asked his opinionof the storybooks, he types out "funny" and "graphics and music are cool".


Living Books (tel: 01429 520250) will be on the Random Housestand 469

* Sarah Watts at The Children's TrustTel 01737 357171

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