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Cutting-Edge Technology Helps Students with Learning Differences

Technology is blazing a trail in the classroom for children with learning differences.

Danny, a fifth-grader at an elementary school in Huntingdon Valley, PA, splits his day between a neuro-typical class and an autistic support class. Back in 2015, the school gave Danny an iPad Mini with Proloquo2go, a communication application (app), affectionately referred to as “the talker” by his classmates. His mom, Lisa Kogan, is always eager to employ the latest technology to help her son.

Today, there are iPads, laptops, tablets, notebooks, audio books, whiteboards, SMART Boards, websites and a diverse selection of apps, all available to assist those with learning differences. Kogan loves that the iPad Mini is socially accepted and can be personalized. “This has revolutionized the way my son learns and how he can be included in school activities,” she says.

Kogan’s advice to PA parents: “Go to the assistive technology department of your county’s Intermediate Unit (IU) [for] assistance with the language apps. Danny started at age 4 and he grew with the devices and apps. You want your child to be evaluated and get assisted by the IU team before you buy the device and the apps, so it fits the level of the child.”

The ACF iPad Enrichment Program 

The iPad Enrichment Program of the Autism Cares Foundation (ACF) in Southampton, PA, helps local parents and their children, teens and adults with autism and other special needs with their diverse communication needs.

Advantages of new technology

Karen Velocci, ACF’s technology director, explains that new technology has become more affordable, accessible and socially acceptable. With the introduction of the iPad in the spring of 2010, “the whole world started turning more toward mobile technology,” she says. “So once a comparable communication system was developed on the iPad, through apps, it became everyone’s preferred choice for children with special needs who have communication issues.”

No matter what the unique needs or communication challenges, Velocci says, everyone can benefit from using an iPad. The visual support is easier than working out of a textbook. The new IOS (Apple operating system) has more functionality and provides great adaptive supports for those with a wide variety of issues including vision, hearing and more.

Apps for all ages

Once a child is diagnosed with a speech or communication delay, an iPad is an ideal tool as it offers a variety of apps that can track the child’s grade and ability level. “They can be customized toward the student’s target goals,” says Velocci, “which is important because every student’s needs or challenges are different.”

There are apps to help older students stay focused and get organized, Velocci adds. “There are apps that can help with visual schedules or calendars, or help with completing a task or project, so that students can work more independently.”

Karen Yosmanovich, the clinical manager at Potential Inc. and Springtime School in Newtown, PA, and executive director of Beautiful Minds of Princeton, NJ, works with students and their parents on individualized programs.

“We used to cut pictures out of catalogues, or have stand-alone speech generating devices. Now we have the iPad, videos and YouTube for a few hundred dollars that provide a similar approach,” says Yosmanovich, a 21-year special educator. “The great benefit is that it allows us to easily add pictures for our younger learners through free or paid apps. It also adds a game element to some of the learning.”

One tool she appreciates is a “Bitsboard,” a $20 app that helps students create their own board for labeling, spelling and a variety of other subjects. Other apps help instructors with data collection and some provide videos that can help promote student independence.

New apps and technology emerge constantly, so Yosmanovich stays informed via several Facebook groups. One such group, moderated by ABAskills of Red Bank, NJ, shares resources regarding Applied Behavior Analysis. There, she even found a dental hygiene app that helped an adult student quell fears about brushing his teeth.

“We know that our learners do better with the more realistic, hands-on approaches than they do with more abstract lessons,” says Yosmanovich.

Life-changing technology

At the Centreville Layton School in Centreville, DE, every classroom — PreK-12 — has a SMART Board, a digital whiteboard that stands in place of a projector, chalkboard and worksheets. Instructor Denise Jarrell says these easy-to-use devices increase student interaction. Most often, activities for younger children are teacher-guided. The older children use iPads and she recommends a “relaxing app” called About Me.

Jarrell recalls the cumbersome devices of the past and notes, “Technology has come so far during the past five to 10 years. The new apps are making everything accessible for the special needs child. There is a dyslexia font, and reading and writing apps, that can do voice to text or text to speech.

“Overall, the emerging technology has changed the lives of students,” Jarrell continues. “Every parent should be looking into the various programs to see which ones can work for his or her child.”

Debra Wallace is a freelance writer.

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