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You Say You Want a Revolution

Smart technology enhancing the lives of kids with special needs

March 2014

Debbie Hill's son loves to play GarageBand on his iPad mini. For a time the iPad becomes his guitar. Hill never dreamed her son, who has Down syndrome, would be able to navigate the iPad as well as he does. "Gabriel doesn't read well, but somehow manages to get where he wants to go [on his iPad]. This was the best investment ever," she said.

Beth Becher, assistive technology coordinator with Hamilton Boone Special Services, is similarly enthusiastic about the i-gadget. Her students use iPads for visual schedules, communication and language, to listen to books, learn about current events and more.

Lorna Fischer, board certified behavior analyst and team supervisor with the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism, uses the iPad as one component of specialized therapy for kids with autism. She says it can be used for motivation or to assist in the actual teaching process.

Similarly, Kim Kaser, whose son has autism, uses a smart phone to address some of her son's needs. For instance, his therapists will video him eating certain foods. "Later at home, when he tells us he can't, we use the video to reinforce that he can," she said.

The list of useful anecdotes stretches on. But why? What's so smart about using smart technologies with kids who have Special Needs?

An iRevolution

"The iPad has become a revolutionary tool in the world of technology for children with disabilities," said Wade Wingler, director of assistive technology with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads. Wingler says that Apple makes accessibility a priority by building features into the iPad that provide users with large print, speech output, switch access for users who can't use their hands, and the ability to limit access to settings and controls or undesirable applications for those with intellectual disabilities.

Beyond these innate features, apps of all kinds exist. Parents can find apps that assist with developing language skills, practicing fine motor skills, learning how to do tasks that require multiple steps, navigating environments, and even describing objects to children who are blind or visually impaired. He recommends www.BridgingApps.org for finding age- and skill-appropriate apps. Apps for Children with Special Needs (www.a4cwsn.com) is another source.

Giving voice

Bethany Boston, a speech language pathologist with Riverview Hospital, has a client with Dandy-Walker syndrome who is nonverbal with limited mobility. Before the iPad he used simple communication devices that were extremely limiting and cumbersome. The iPad makes communication more fluid. "It gives him a voice. It allows us to know how intelligent he is. Today I read a whole article on Martin Luther King and then asked him some true-false questions and yes-no questions and he got 100 percent. I think for me that is the best thing about the iPad. I get to see that yes - he gets it," she said.

Janine Shapiro, speech-language pathologist and board certified behavior analyst with Applied Behavior Center for Autism, agrees the iPad's virtues outweigh those of other alternative augmentative communication devices. "We have always known that a person is most likely to communicate using the path of least resistance," she said. In short, why use heavy, inconvenient equipment to communicate when it's far easier to yell or kick to get your point across? Today with iPads, there are numerous applications that support communication in a much easier way.

Thinking outside the "i"box

There's more to smart technology than the iPad. Recently the Fortune Academy, which educates students with language learning differences, added SmartPens to its high school students' tech tool repertoire. The pen records lectures and syncs to notes allowing students to listen to lectures at home and compare the lecture to notes.

"Assistive technology is bridging the gap for many students with learning disabilities. We know direct, multi-sensory teaching works, and we know assistive technology supports this teaching," said head of high school Jim O'Donnell. He believes the more tools parents and educators can give kids to stay competitive in school and life the better.

Try before you buy

Of course, none of this comes cheap. Fortunately some resources exist to help. The INDATA Project, for instance, operates a lending library of assistive technology devices, which includes several iPads pre-loaded with assistive apps. Families can also check with their child's school district to see if they have gadgets or even apps families can try.

Tags: In This Issue, Special Needs

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