At the Manhattan Children’s Center on the Upper West Side, Christopher, 9, sits at a desk in front of his teacher and an iPad. Diagnosed with autism, Christopher has difficulty communicating. He makes high-pitched sounds, almost like crying, to get his feelings across to his teacher. But today, with the iPad and an application for special education called Proloquo2Go, Christopher may finally have a voice.
“What am I doing?” said Christopher’s teacher, clapping his hands together.
Christopher maneuvered his index finger over the iPad screen, swiping from page to page. When he spotted the symbol he wanted, he stopped and tapped it.
“Clapping,” said a male mechanical voice from the iPad.
“Good job, buddy!” said his teacher. “What am I doing now?” he said, bringing his balled-up fists to his eyes and rotating them while frowning.
Christopher quickly moved from screen to screen. He stopped and pressed his finger against a symbol.
“Crying,” said the robotic monotone.
The autism spectrum includes a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes. One of the most common characteristics of autism is impaired social interaction, which often stems from an individual’s inability to express themselves verbally.
“For students with autism, one of their biggest deficits is language development,” said Marci Rothenberg, a speech language pathologist at the Manhattan Children’s Center. “They very often have difficulty interacting with peers.”
The need for advanced methods in teaching children with autism is greater than ever, with 1 in 88 children in the U.S. being identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The University of Toronto has been studying the use of mobile technology, like the iPad and the iPhone, to teach children on the autism spectrum. Researchers have found that just as young children babble and gurgle as they grow up, children with autism use the iPad to explore and play with language. However, lead researchers on the project admit that it will be years before there is concrete scientific evidence as to whether using the iPad results in any cognitive improvement.
The use of technology to teach children on the spectrum or those with communication disabilities is not a new concept. The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 defines “Assistive Technology”as any device that is used to help individuals with disabilities maintain or improve their functional capabilities. One such communication device is the DynaVox, a voice-generator that allows individuals with speech difficulties to express themselves.
As of this year, Apple estimates that there are 1.5 million iPads already in use in educational institutions. It has been integrated into more and more special education classrooms, with thousands of apps being developed especially for children with autism and other speech and language disabilities. While Apple does not track data specifically for iPad sales in special education, as of this year, the company says it has sold more than twice as many iPads as Macs to K-12 customers. The iPad has been touted not only as the latest innovation for the special education classroom but also as a therapeutic device and a behavior monitor.
Although the iPad performs a similar function to its competitor, the DynaVox, which is about the size of a clock radio, special education teachers say they favor the Apple tablet because of its compactness and its relatively low cost. A DynaVox can range between $5,000 and $10,000, while the latest iPad costs upwards of $400. Several teachers and parents also use Proloquo2Go, a $189.99 app that uses icons of pictures, words, numbers and sounds to express thoughts and ideas that the student cannot verbalize. Teachers also say their students don’t attract attention to themselves when they communicate with the iPad in public, as they would with a DynaVox.
Vicki Windman, a special education teacher at Clarkstown High School South in West Nyack, N.Y., has been using the iPad in her classroom for about two years. Windman, who also conducts workshops for teachers on how to use the iPad to teach students with special needs, said each child in her class has his or her own iPad, either from the school funding or their parents. She sets up the devices before the class starts, customizing each one according to the student’s Individualized Education Program, which sets out education goals for students with disabilities.
“It’s [iPad] a great tool but you can’t just throw it at a child and say ‘Here you go,’” said Windman. “It’s important to remember that it’s not a cure,” she added.
Windman finds that the iPad is especially useful for determining each child’s strengths and weaknesses. “It allows the kids who couldn’t take in certain information to take in that information on their level,” said Windman.
But as with any new technology, even teachers who swear by the iPad have to admit that there is room for improvement. Typically when teaching children with autism, therapists and educators use a highly structured program in which each day follows a particular schedule. As of now, the iPad’s ability to plan out the child’s day is limited, said Shana Sabattini, lead teacher at the Manhattan Children’s Center.
The available special education apps also don’t allow teachers to track and document a student’s progress. While Rothenberg said she does not usually use the iPad for this purpose, Windman said she wishes more developers would create apps that allow teachers to make student assessments and send weekly reports to parents using the iPad. Windman also said that most apps are aimed at younger elementary school children and more need to be developed for students in middle school and high school.
Whether the iPad will actually help children with autism remains to be seen with several pilot studies in progress. Yet the use of the iPad in the classroom is rapidly gaining traction in the special education system and teachers like Windman continue to stand by it.
“I want my kids to have life skills — how to read a recipe, how to read a newspaper, personal hygiene. I can do that with the iPad,” said Windman.