By Carly Q. Romalino/Gloucester County Times Gloucester County Times
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Dr. Tom Ryan, principal at the Durand Academy in Woodbury, encourages his students to turn on their iPods and iPads every day during class.
The handheld mini-computers that would distract other mainstream kids do the opposite for Ryan’s students with autism, who need the devices to give them a voice and open them up to the concept of choice.
The iPods and iPads aren’t the first devices on the scene to offer interactive programs that allows people with limited verbal abilities to communicate. The Dynovox has been used for years, and works similarly to the Apple devices, but for each $10,000 Dynovox, a school can buy more than a dozen iPads, which cost only a few hundred dollars.
The functions of both devices remain similar. In addition to educational games that can be inexpensively and easily added to the iPods and iPads, communication software allows students to type in what they want to say, but are unable to speak, according to autism class teacher Samantha Panagiotopoulo.
Her students – a half dozen 10- to 13-year-olds with Autism – have limited verbal communication ability. Making a choice between two items, as easy as deciding between cookies and crackers for snack time, was impossible. The pre-teen students would just repeat the last thing she said instead of telling her what they really wanted to eat.
Now when Panagiotopoulo asks her students if they want cheese puffs or potato chips for lunch, students like 10-year-old Kianna Parker can run back to her desk, point to the icon for “I want” and pair it with the photo for cheese puffs, and the iPad will read the sentence aloud. “I want cheese puffs,” the iPad will tell the teacher on Kianna’s behalf.
“They can communicate something they couldn’t (communicate) before,” said Panagiotopoulo, who said she has noticed a decrease in her students’ frustration levels since the Durand Academy introduced the Apple technology that also goes home with them.
While teachers of the school’s two autism classes have noticed improvements in communication since the iPads and iPods were introduced, Ryan said there is not yet research on the books to certify the devices have an impact. But parents, too, have noticed an improvement, he said.
“There is little imperical evidence that these things work. It’s purely anecdotal,” he said.
The lack of research, combined with Durand’s observations of success, has prompted the school to partner with software developers of iCommunicate, an assistive software for people who require visual aids, according to Ryan.