Assistive technology takes special education classrooms by storm…
This article first appeared in the August/Sept. 2012 issue of Autism File magazine
I’m standing inside the entrance of a classroom at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, IL where autism spectrum students and typical students are interacting in groups during a reading session. My reason for visiting is to observe a particular young man who was reported to me as an excellent example of a child who has made great strides through the school district’s newest tool in its assistive technology program.
Joshua Pilafas, a tall and handsome 13-year-old sixth grade student appears, in every sense, to be severely affected by autism. What one first sees are the stereotypical repetitive behaviors and nervous energy that requires him to be in a state of nearly constant motion. Rocking as he moves, his hands and arms flit about as he transitions between tasks. When it’s time to sit, he’s accompanied by a teacher’s aide and an attentive typical classmate. Almost immediately, I can see his demeanor change as his attention focuses on the device placed before him, an Apple iPad.
As Joshua’s fingers glide over the iPad’s screen, I notice that he’s communicating with his aide through an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) app, answering questions asked of him on the lesson at hand. But what really struck me was his intensity of focus with this device. He clearly is motivated to use this technology and connect with his peers. In fact, so are many of the special needs students at MacArthur Elementary, as are students at all other districts I’ve surveyed or read about.
What is it about tablet computers that have made them so universally appealing and so well suited for special education? Why are schools adapting them to curricula in such large numbers and most importantly, how are they benefiting our special needs children?
To learn these answers, I’ve interviewed several administrators and teachers in various districts around the country, before focusing my attention on Schaumburg Elementary School District 54 (of which Hoffman Estates’ MacArthur school is affiliated). Of all the districts I spoke with, the Schaumburg district’s assistive technology program embodied many of the best elements of each. I got a great look at their program and a tactile sense for why tablet computers are taking these forward-minded departments by storm.
A revolution in functionality and affordability
Two years ago, Apple, Inc. perfected the decades-old idea of a tablet computer with its latest addition to its line-up of iOS products, the iPad; an open-platform device with a rich ecosystem of readily available applications (or ‘apps’ as they’re referred to) for every imaginable use. For the educational market alone, Apple reports well over 40,000 apps. They also report that more than 600 U.S. public school districts are known to have implemented 1:1 iPad programs for their students, meaning that each student will have access to a device. That constitutes close to five percent of all 14,000 U.S. public school districts. While no statistics are readily available on how many iPads exist in all other school districts, or in special education departments, all those I surveyed were acquiring them for their special needs students who needed them.
So why the sudden revolution, when touch screen devices have been around for years in special education, such as AAC communication devices by DynaVox (the Maestro) and Prentke Romich (Essence Pro or Vantage Light)?
There are several answers to that question that resolve, primarily, to broader functionality and affordability. Cassandra Williams, the Schaumburg districts’ Executive Director of Special Ed. told me how the iPad program has taken the role of touch-screen devices well beyond that of augmentative communication. “This iPad can not only grow with the child and take the place of all these communication devices, but it also has other things that it can do that would benefit the student…in different areas of literacy, math and social skills. The teachers and instructional assistants use varied applications to supplement the core curriculum they use with the students.”
Michelle Pilafas, Joshua’s mother, had something to say about the iPad’s flexibility as a result of its numerous applications. “The ‘Mobile Education Tools’ apps are phenomenal with their ‘SentenceBuilder’™ and ‘ConversationBuilder’™. Those are good to use in the classroom, especially the social work setting. Also, there is the ‘Coin Math’™ app which is a really great tool to have because it shows the exchange of money for purchasing things for developing those life skills.”
The examples are as numerous as the variety of apps available. Laura Garrett, the district’s Assistive Technology Facilitator, shared with me her 35 “most used” apps from the district’s list of 120 apps that they have tested in their program. They are categorized by Academics, Basic and Advanced Communication, Leisure, Math, Reading, Scheduling/Timers, Sensory, Social Skills & Stories, Social Science and Writing. For any subject or skill training within the school’s curriculum, Ms. Garrett informed me, “There’s an app for that!”
In terms of affordability and sheer cost savings, the iPad, as a multi-purpose tool, has been recognized for its potential to replace the expensive single-purpose communication tablet devices costing multiple thousands of dollars. Cassandra Williams told me, “We are finding a lot of success with iPads as communication devices. The reason being, you could fill up a cart with devices that range from simple switches that might cost $50 to a high-end communicator like the Dynavox that could cost $8,000.” The iPad, which currently costs around $500, can match the capabilities of a range of other devices which combined, would cost well over $10,000.
Funding the options
Michelle Pilafas learned first-hand the difficulties of financing the expensive AAC communicators when her son Joshua had a need for one. “We realized Joshua really had problems with expressive language and how his frustrations were causing problems with behaviors. In 2009, we took him to Easter Seals, where they did an extensive evaluation and they recommended a Vantage Lite device.” Michelle tried to get funding through insurance and the Medicaid Waiver for the device, which costs around $8,000. Having no luck with either Medicaid or her insurance company, Michelle turned to the school district for help. They were researching Dynavox and Vantage, but Michelle asked them about iPads, which she thought might be more practical. The staff at District 54 was “very excited about this new technology and opportunity because it’s cost-effective,” said Michelle.
Cassandra Williams concluded her comments on affordability contrasting her district to those with funding challenges. “We are fortunate here in our district that we have had a balanced budget and the people who handle finances here do an outstanding job. We’ve been able to provide devices to students, including the $8000 devices, so it hasn’t been a hardship for us necessarily.” She suggests that districts struggling financially should investigate the benefits of the emerging cost-effective technologies.
The Benefits: Joshua’s iPad Experience
Prior to working with the iPad, Joshua had trouble expressing anything beyond his wants and needs. Michelle reports that his teachers described him as having difficulty making friends and feeling anxiety during transitions. The communication deficits affected every aspect of his school experience.
Once his team had introduced Joshua to the iPad, one of the first goals to tackle was improved communication. The AAC app they chose for him was Proloquo2Go. “He uses it in multiple ways,” Michelle informs. “He uses it to state how he’s feeling, and to request something when his words are stuck and he can’t seem to get them out. He can now go to his device and have a voice.” The effect has been dramatic. “I think being able to say what he truly wants and feels has minimized his frustration,” says Michelle.
I asked his teachers how his improved communication has affected his schooling. “It makes him more a part of the classroom,” states Gina Pocica, a special services teacher at MacArthur school. “He gets to become more a part of society and the students get to see him as a person and not someone who has special needs. He is a LOT calmer in class.”
Robin Podlin, Joshua’s teacher, told me a story of how his social life at school has improved. On a recent field trip involving a long bus ride, other students observed Joshua with his iPad and asked him questions about the various apps, which Joshua would then demonstrate. “There’s an app that creates sentences, so it gives him a choice of a few words to pick to create a sentence that matches a picture,” Robin said. “So, his friends and he were making sentences with it. Granted it’s a teaching tool, but it was also a friend-building tool…it was a chance for them to interact like sixth graders interact.”
Laura Garret, the district’s AT Facilitator reiterates, “He did not have these friend relationships. He wasn’t able to express himself the way that he can now. In terms of relationships, it seemed more intrinsic and internal, more of ‘what I want,’ ‘what I need’ and now it’s, ‘I’m branching out to others’ needs and wants.’” She also notes that having the visuals and the ability to express the frustration of not wanting to change or not wanting to go to a certain area has increased his ability to handle transitions.
One last benefit that really impressed me was the development of spontaneous speech for some students once they’ve become proficient with an iPad or other AAC device. Carol Leffler, an Assistive Technology Facilitator also with the Schaumburg district, discussed this benefit as disproving the myth that iPads and similar technology would replace—rather than increase—verbal expression. “What we’ve seen with a lot of our students is that they don’t always have access to the words. They might be up there, but they can’t get them out.” Carol believes that when students see the visual representations, they picture and hear the words. Repetition makes the words ingrained and eventually spontaneous, so students don’t need the device to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” or “I feel sick.” This type of technology “really does increase spontaneous communication,” says Carol.
No device is an island unto itself
As wonderful as the progress has been for students like Joshua, such success does not come as easily as purchasing a tablet computer. “We are telling you about successes,” Laura Garrett stresses. “Some kids need a greater amount of modeling or facilitation.”
Students generally begin playing with the device and exploring with it, but communication isn’t instantaneous. Teaching staff need training on how to implement the technology and how to set up situations where students want to communicate. “My teams went through three staff developments with me on how to try to facilitate communication whether it be with some high tech device from Dynavox or with an iPad,” says Laura. “Unless there is the facilitation, the modeling and the use of the true communication process, you’re not going to see as much success as they really can show you.”
Assistive technology in education is a big subject. While iPads are not the only tablets out there, I focused on them because of their sheer prevalence in schools today. The Android tablets also hold a lot of promise as their own ecosystem of apps is continuing to grow and the various devices come down in price. Additionally, I wish not to disparage the more expensive AAC devices like DynaVox and Prentke Romich’s Vantage, since some of their products use alternative input technologies and are much better suited for the physically or visually impaired.
If you are interested in pursuing assistive technology solutions for your special needs student, start by asking questions of his or her teaching staff, and the administrators within the district. If they already have a program in place, you can request assistive technology to become part of your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program). If they do not have a program in place, you may still be able to get his or her district to pay for a device if you’ve exhausted all other funding options and can demonstrate as much.