Thursday, August 25, 2011

In NJ schools, iPads assist disabled students to communicate, make music

From the Asbury Park Press in NJ:

Anthony Leuck of Berkeley is used to communicating in ways that aren’t quite conventional.

The 18-year-old has an undiagnosed disorder that makes speech and muscle control extremely difficult. He interacts through eye gaze, or by tapping his head against a switch on a communication device to spell out words.

But on a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Lehmann Center, a special-needs school in Lakewood, Leuck was given a different challenge: making music with his hands.

He met the challenge, with some effort, sliding his knuckles lightly over the digital image of a guitar on an iPad screen. The touches produced a series of acoustic-style chords from the iPad – and a big grin from Leuck.

Leuck is among hundreds of special-needs students in the state, and elsewhere, who will be working with iPads in the classroom this year.

Since Apple launched the device in April 2010 – 3 million devices sold in 80 days – they’ve been gaining popularity in the special-needs community.

The iPads are customizable to each child’s needs, are lightweight and mobile, and give the kids the sense they’re plugged into a larger, high-tech community, educators and parents said.

Leuck’s Lehmann instructors credited his love of music (his favorite band is Kiss), the instant reward (Leuck touched the screen and heard the chord immediately) – and, of course, the iPad itself – for his small victory.

“These children can access and enjoy everything a typically developing child would enjoy – they just have to access it differently,” said Gina Shulman, Lehmann social worker. “We have that fine motor skill; we can take a finger and press all those tiny keyboard buttons and little tiny switches. Now, our children, with just a gentle touch, can color; they can play instruments.”

Marlboro Public Schools bought 60 iPads that will be introduced to autistic students this year; a few students who need them to communicate received them in 2010, said Robert Klein, the district’s director of special services.

Klein said an autistic student who began using the devices last year “initiated, really, one of his first conversations ever using the iPad with staff.” A separate pilot program in the district, funded by a $10,000 Optimum grant last year, showed improved reading scores for iPad users, district officials said.

One of the applications the district uses encourages autistic students to make eye contact. Another allows a user to select from images on a screen to communicate everything from how he or she is feeling to where he or she wants to go, Klein said. The applications, or “apps,” can range in price from free to $200 and beyond.

“It’s turning out to be, really, a magical thing,” Klein said. “The disability is such that (children with autism) live within themselves. The iPads draw them out.”

Apple conducted one training session for the district in June; another will be held before school begins, Klein said. The company declined this week to disclose how many districts in New Jersey are using the devices.

“There are devices that do communicate for students with autism but they are bulkier, bigger, more difficult to use and a lot more expensive; they can run into the thousands where the iPad is $500,” Klein said. “If they can use the iPad to say what they want to say by just tapping a picture on the screen, that’s a great thing.”

The district purchased the devices, training and accessories with $77,330 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds received two years ago, according to the district.

Families of students at Morristown-Beard School, a private school in Morristown, are required to buy their own iPads this school year; about 540 youths will use them in classrooms here, school spokesman Steve Patchett said.

Among them will be students with special needs ranging from attention deficit disorder to dyslexia and auditory processing issues, said Jenna Sumner, director of the school’s learning center.

One application students are using provides a series of on-screen bubbles in which to organize daily activities, thoughts or assignments. Another allows them to hear a vocal output of what they’ve typed. Students may also read a passage aloud and see it translated into text, Sumner said.

“I do think as we go through this year, we’re going to learn a tremendous amount ourselves about what is highly effective with students,” Sumner said. “Learning is individual. So, getting the right tool or the right application in the right hands is something we’re going to look to do.”

Meanwhile, therapists at the Lehmann school anticipate the devices will help get students better acclimated to using touch to navigate their world.

Settings on some applications can be adjusted to the type of touch students are able to produce – whether one-finger, two-finger, dragging fingers or a direct tap, occupational therapist Belinda McKee said. Or, they can be used to challenge students to try a different type of touch, McKee said.

Lehmann bought two of the devices for $699 each in August, using a private donation from the Lakewood Lions Club. The school made the move after seeing the success students had with iPads at home. They hope to purchase more, said Shulman and Patricia Carlesimo, executive director of Ladacin Network.

Ladacin is the umbrella agency for Lehmann and the Schroth Center in Ocean Township. Both are private, nonprofit schools for children with multiple disabilities.

“Once they’ve mastered the use of a switch, they can access the computer, they can move their chair, they can increase their mobility,” Carlesimo said. “The whole world opens up.”