Technology Helps Special Education Students Find Their Voice
At Ashley Elementary School, a fifth grade student sits at lunch, talking with friends and using an iPad.
He looks like any other student his age. He fits in.
But there is something different. The special education student has challenges communicating due to autism.
Electronic devices such as the iPad have opened up his world – allowing him to participate more in school and interact with his classmates.
He has found his voice with the help of an everyday electronic device.
It’s a trend happening across Frisco ISD. Students with speech delays, autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome have found new ways to express themselves, thanks to modern technology.
Some students have literally spoken their first words. Others have learned to touch words and images on a screen, communicating complete thoughts and sentences.
“We used to use sign language a lot more often, but society doesn’t sign,” said Debbie Lair, coordinator of elementary services for the Frisco ISD Special Education Department. “What do you do when you go to a restaurant or out in public?
Sign language and large, bulky communication devices used to be the only tools available.
Now, iDevices and touch screen technology go where students go – and they look just like the millions of other Americans toting around tablets and smart phones.
“New technology has also helped our teachers discover more accurately what a child knows and is capable of achieving,” Lair said. “We’ve always known that being labeled non-verbal does not equate to low cognitive ability. The iPads help us gain additional insight into each student’s cognitive abilities.”
Lair recently observed a middle school student with many behavior and communication issues sitting with another student, playing an age-appropriate game with cartoon characters.
“A few years ago, I would have said it was impossible,” she said. “This is one of our most severe cases. I didn’t think she would let a peer get within 10 feet. They were laughing together. It brought tears to my eyes. Technology like this is going to be the gateway for all these kids to be out in the world doing more and more.”
For parents and teachers, the leaps made with some students seem miraculous.
In the last few years, the words iPad, purple and water have been some of the first identifiable words to come out of the mouths of children who had never spoken or communicated clearly before. Some students who still don’t speak have learned to “touch” complete sentences on an iPad. The phenomenon has FISD teachers and parents scrambling to get the devices into the hands of as many students as possible.
“I just hope Steve Jobs knew what he has done for these children,” said Angie Jenkins, a special education instructor at Ashley Elementary, referring to the now deceased founder of Apple.
Jenkins and paraprofessional Jenny Bradley recently held an iPad and asked a student to say the word before handing it to him. The student tried to fall back on bad habits and just take it, pleading with unintelligible sounds. But the educators held firm.
Realizing he was going to have to work for it, the young man breathily whispered the word, “iPad” with a strong emphasis on the “i” and “p” sound. Bradley gave him the iPad and he quickly sat down and began working on a word matching program.
Teachers first began to see similar results a few years ago.
It happened when another student clued teachers into his favorite color, something they hadn’t known before. While working on a program to point out colors, one day he surprised Jenkins and Ashley speech teacher Shannon Archer by clearly stating through the iPad and aloud his preference for purple.
Another member of the FISD Special Education team, special education aide Shanel Simone, is the mom of twin boys with autism at Cobb Middle School.
The twins speak some, but Simone says they live in their own world and that makes them vulnerable to being misunderstood by strangers. She is hoping to teach them to text their address and phone number in case they ever become separated from family or get lost. As they become older, it has become more of a concern for Simone as a single mom.
The twins are already comfortable using technology at school and at home. Simone says it helps her understand what is going on in their heads. She has learned Apple offers the best ease of use for her boys and it makes things easier if all the communication devices they use work on the same principles. She recently gave up her old familiar cell phone for an iPhone.
“We have seven Apple devices in the house that are all interchangeable,” she said. “I have chargers and extra cables in every nook and cranny.”
Technology also reduces anxiety for the Simone twins. It allows their mom and teachers to download their schedules with reminders about social cues and enables them to use a visual timer. It has also given their mother a window into the private worlds of her autistic children.
“They are tuned out of my world,” Simone said. “But when they are on an iPod or an iPad they seem happy. I can see them laughing and cutting up and know they are experiencing joy. I can see it in their faces and in their interactions.”
Throughout the District, parents, teachers and volunteers are increasingly aware of the need for even more technology, particularly among students who struggle to communicate.
A Destination Imagination team from Clark Middle School has made education and fundraising to purchase iDevices and mobile apps for special education students their project for this year’s competition. The team, which won at Globals last year with another special education-themed entry, has become passionate about getting technology into the hands of non-verbal students. The team’s home campus, Clark, is known for successfully integrating special education students into the complex social strata of the middle school lunch room.
FISD teachers have also donated old iPhones and iTouches to the Special Education Department. A local charitable organization, The Giving Tree, recently donated iPads to Bright and Sonntag elementary schools for use by both regular classroom and special education teachers. The Simone family received an iPad from Ability Connection Texas, an organization that supports children and adults with disabilities.
The electronic devices are more than just trendy learning tools for those who’ve seen their impact. They are changing the future for students with a variety of learning and communication challenges.
“You need communication in order to be social,” Lair said. “You can’t have good social skills without communication. These devices allow students to look and communicate more like their peers. It levels the playing field.”