Ability Switches: The Nuts and Bolts

The Exceptional Parent, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Ability Switches: The Nuts and Bolts


An ability switch, in simple terms, is an alternative to a button that requires fine dexterity to push. Many toys and appliances operate because of fine motor stimulation, prohibiting many people with fine motor challenges from finding independence with daily tasks. Ability switches offer the option to make things work with a simple gesture that an individual with special needs can master, and may not even require the use of hands and fingers.

There are many ability switches on the market designed to function for individuals with a wide range of special needs. There are also many adapted toys and appliances, manufactured to work with ability switches. Furthermore, there are adaptive devices that can help standard household appliances and battery-operated toys work with switches.

As Diana Hohmann COTA, (Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant) explains, the word "function" is key when introducing a switch to your child and teaching him or her how to operate it: "Using ability switches is not the end goal for children and adults with disabilities," she says. "The end goal is the task set before them, whether that's using an adapted toy for fun or a practical household appliance. Ability switches make it possible for people with limited fine motor abilities to function in our fast-paced world."

Diana explains that, in therapeutic environments, she often comes across care professionals who focus on the flash of switches rather than their function. "Push the button," she hears them saying over and over again. And while the button might be shiny, it has a greater purpose: it is enabling rather than simply entertaining. "Don't say 'Push the button,'" Diana says. "Instead, say 'Turn on the fan'"

Why Buy an Ability Switch?

It feels good to be independent, doesn't it? Children and adults with special needs enjoy a feeling of independence when operating adapted switches and making toys and appliances work with little to no assistance from caregivers. So the answer to the question of why you buy a switch is simple: you are adapting daily living tools to individuals who can't, themselves, adapt to use them.

A switch can make many small, previously difficult--or even impossible--tasks easy. Your child might benefit from a switch if his fine motor skills don't permit him to manipulate small on/off buttons on his favorite mechanical toy. Using his switch with this toy, he gains a sense of control and independence. It's a "Look what I can do!" moment every time he operates the switch, triggering the lights, sounds or movements of the toy. And that can be a very empowering experience for a child who's used to getting help with many of his daily activities, including play.

But the hard part can be choosing the appropriate switch with many options on the market!

Choosing the Right Switch

Assess your child's level of ability. Can he or she operate a switch with the touch of a finger or hand? If not, ask yourself if he can perform other small gestures such as tilting his head or squeezing his fist. The blue box offers up some handy questions to answer when you are choosing the right ability switch. Believe it or not, simple movements--like a nod, swipe or blow--can activate sensitive switches, making it possible for almost anyone in need to find a suitable switch.

"Another thing to consider is motivation," Diana explains. "Ask yourself what things interest your child: what's his favorite color and what kinds of touchy feely surfaces does he find pleasing. Many switches are brightly-colored or textured for tactile stimulation."

There are two basic types of switches: Latch switches--which turn appliances on with an action and then require the same action to turn them off, and ...

Switches that require the switch to be continually activated to keep appliances running, meaning that as long as they are engaged, they will make things go. …

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