While many of us may joke about not remembering our own phone number or where we last placed the car keys, memory loss is no laughing matter for a child with a cognitive disability. Memory loss can have a devastating effect on a child and his or her family, dramatically altering the landscape of everyday life.

Memory strategies that most of us rely on to carry out our daily routine, such as checklists, calendars, and Post-it notes, may not provide adequate support for the child with a cognitive disability and memory loss.

When conventional memory compensation tools and strategies aren’t enough, families may consider more sophisticated cognitive aids. Recent advances in computer and telecommunications technologies have given rise to a number of powerful devices that offer an alternative to the pen and paper strategies and other low-tech approaches.

These devices are often off-the-shelf technologies that many people use every day, such as personal digital assistants, pagers, wristwatches, and cell phones. Children with cognitive de.cits can learn to use these technologies to compensate for memory and other cognitive deficiencies.

Karen’s story, below, is a good example of how o.-the-shelf technologies, such as an electronic watch or personal electronic organizer, offer the added layer of support a child with memory loss needs to function more independently.

Karen’s Story

Karen, a 15-year-old girl, was hit by a car when she was 10 years old, resulting in severe cognitive deficits, including memory loss. Although her cognitive skills improved over the five years after her accident, she continued to struggle with keeping track of time and activities. Karen kept a written daily planner, but she often forgot to use it and she frequently misplaced it. Karen’s mother consulted an occupational therapist who suggested that Karen try using a wristwatch called the Timex Data Link® This watch merges electronic daily planner technologies with a wristwatch alarm system. Multiple alarms were set to alert Karen when she was supposed to attend to a task, such as taking her medication, making a phone call, or turning in a homework assignment to her teacher. When the alarm sounded, Karen could read a message on the watch, such as “Call home now” or “Take your medication” which would prompt Karen to carry out these activities. Karen was also less likely to misplace the watch since she wore it on her wrist.

Karen was anxious about using the watch at first, so her therapist taught her how to use the most essential features only. She also showed Karen’s mother how to program the watch for Karen, so that Karen needed only to respond to the alarms and messages throughout her day. This approach minimized Karen’s stress, and she began to appreciate how the watch helped her to stay on track by reminding her to do important daily tasks. After a few months of training, Karen was ready to start using other helpful features of the watch, such as the to-do list, schedule planner, and phone book.

Families should also be aware of cognitive aids designed expressly for persons with cognitive deficits. The TimePAD by Attainment Company, for example, is a small, pager-sized device created for people who need reminders throughout their day. The device is programmed by a caregiver to play pre-recorded voice messages at pre-set times, such as “It’s 7:30 a.m.—go outside to wait for the school bus.” The main difference between this device and a regular pager is that it speaks the messages aloud instead of displaying them in a text format. This could be beneficial to children with reading difficulties, visual impairments, or those who respond best to auditory cuing. The device will hold up to 72 seconds of speech divided among five messages. It costs about $30 and comes with a belt clip. For more information contact Attainment Company, www.attainmentcompany.com

Strategies for Selecting the Right Cognitive Aids
Before acquiring a cognitive aid for your child, families should give consideration to several factors during the selection process to assure a good match between their child’s needs and a cognitive aid device.

  • Consider the personal characteristics of the child, including their physical, social, cognitive, and sensory level. For instance, a child who is not able to understand the usefulness of a beeper alarm system would not be a good candidate for its use. 
  • If the child has a functional limitation, such as limited fine motor skills or low vision, look for devices that have larger buttons, larger print displays, or other accessible features. 
  • Choose devices that are user-friendly and simple. Complicated devices lead to user frustration and device abandonment. 
  • Set realistic expectations about what the device can do for your child. 

The technologies of today provide families with additional tools to help their children succeed at home, school, and in the community.

This information was adapted from PACER Center, www.pacer.org and used with permission.