The Bellevue-based Kindering Center, one of the largest neurodevelopment centers in the country, is finding success using iPads to help children with autism.

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At first, it was hard for Robert and Doris Cruz to accept that their son Wyatt was autistic.

“There’s that denial phase,” said Robert, a 39-year-old Renton engineer. “You think, he can’t be.”

Unlike his twin brother, Wyatt struggled to communicate with others. Unable to convey his feelings and overwhelmed by sights and sounds around him, he often resorted to tantrums.

Last spring, doctors told Robert and Doris that their son was showing mild signs of autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that causes social problems.

Two things have spurred preliminary but significant progress since then for Wyatt, who turned 3 on Saturday: the Kindering Center and the iPad.

The staff at the Bellevue center, which Wyatt has been attending since April, started using Apple’s trademark tablet to help him understand directions, to provide structure to his activities and to encourage positive behavior.

“The iPad was a bridge,” said Wyatt’s 31-year-old teacher, Shafer Crissey. “We let him have fun with it and then presented directions through it, and pretty soon we were able to take it away and he would take the directions.”

The use of iPads for children with autism, including those with severe cases where speaking is impossible, has been widely discussed since “60 Minutes” aired a story on the subject last fall. But a lot remains unknown about if, how and why the devices help, and experts say each experience contributes to their understanding.

Kindering, one of 12 agencies benefiting from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, is among the largest neurodevelopment centers in the United States and thus influences the nation’s thinking about how to care for special-needs children. Now in its 50th year, the center serves more than 3,000 children annually — most under 3 years old — with physical, mental or social development.

The center’s $7 million budget comes about equally from federal government allocations, local school-district payments, Medicaid payouts and private donations. The five iPads were donated by The David & Minnie Meyerson Foundation in 2010.

Children come via referrals from an even more varied set of sources, including doctors, teachers, social workers and families. Some are served at home and others at the center.

Most receive about three hours of services per week, and each gets a specialized plan, said Mimi Siegel, the center’s executive director.

“It’s very tailored to the child’s needs,” Siegel said. “You want to do all that’s necessary to maximize a child’s skills, but you also want to leave as much freedom and playtime as for a typical child.”

In other words, it all comes down to the needs of kids like Wyatt.

Sharing is stressed

Dressed in a light-blue shirt, navy blue sweatpants and white tennis shoes, Wyatt ran to the main table of Kindering’s CUBS (Communication, Understanding, Behavior and Socialization) autism classroom on a recent school day, eager to play with his favorite toy.

Crissey opened the iPad’s Zoo Train application, transforming the tablet into a stage featuring an animated fish, the letters I-S-F-H and four blank spaces.

“What is it?” the teacher asked, as Wyatt quickly put the letters in the correct order.

Crissey praised Wyatt for his spelling, but the teacher really got excited a few minutes later when another toddler approached.

“Let’s share the iPad with William!” he exclaimed, directing each boy to alternate placing individual letters.

Eventually, with help from Crissey and an assistant, the children switched whole turns completing the puzzles.

Those five minutes were the only extended use of the iPad during this particular two-hour session, but in an interview afterward, Crissey called the interaction important because sharing is an essential social skill that autistic children often struggle with.

“A lot of times with kids with autism, we want to stress sharing,” he said.

“We want them to be sharing joy and learning to take an interest in other people, to imitate others.”

The iPads are good at encouraging sharing, Crissey said, because the kids love them and the puzzle applications naturally break down into pieces, forcing children to wait for what they want.

The devices are also useful for motivating good behavior and giving directions, especially because many autistic children can more easily process visual images than spoken requests, Crissey said.

One application the class relies on, he said, allows the children to schedule their activities — such as trampoline, group play, snack time and singing — through images.

It’s much less ambitious than the usage by severely autistic children, who in some cases communicate by tapping images of words on the iPad, which are then spoken aloud by the device. But Crissey said the iPads have made a big difference in the four-kid CUBS class.

“It’s pretty incredible,” he said.

“You learn to get the help”

Watching his son through a one-way window outside the classroom, Robert Cruz smiled.

It was a good day for Wyatt, Cruz later explained. The toddler has been having a lot of good days lately.

Raising an autistic child has been challenging, he said. That’s partially for financial reasons — while the Kindering sessions are free, Robert and Doris take a lot of unpaid time off from work to watch Wyatt.

It’s also difficult for emotional reasons.

“There’s some self-doubt,” Robert said. “You wonder if there’s something wrong with your parenting skills.”

Kindering has helped the family, he said: The twice-weekly two-hour sessions have made Wyatt more social and able to take directions, and made his parents better able to understand and help their son.

“Gradually you learn to accept that your child needs help and you learn to get the help,” Robert said.

“It’s been a wonderful program.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.