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iPad, apps key to unlocking communication barrier with autistic students

 

As the mother of an autistic son, Marlena Odon says she used to worry about sending Kharon off to school into the hands of others who might not be able to interpret what he was trying to say. But now, thanks to the integration of the iPad into Kharon's  New York public school, Odon says he is able to communicate his wants and needs -- and his excitement over this is unmistakable.  

“He’s been determined since birth,” Odon told FoxNews.com.

Bronx, N.Y.-based PS176X educates more than 700 students with autism and other special needs, from preschool to age 21.

Principal Rima Ritholtz says the iPad has unlocked the communication barrier for these children on the spectrum.

“We started integrating the iPads into the classrooms two years ago, and feel that it is really revolutionizing the work that we do here” Ritholtz told FoxNews.com

Lessons for these special-needs students start with basic life skills, so snack time becomes a learning moment using their “Snack Board” on the iPad.

Teacher Leigh Aufenanger asks each of the five students circling one table in her room what they would like to eat. Most students in this particular room have difficulty expressing what snack they would like. So by taping a food item on the “Snack Board,” the iPad voices the request for them, and the teacher prompts them to mimic the sentence to the best of their ability.

“They have all been increasing in their willingness and ability to speak ever since we have the iPads in the classroom,” Aufenanger told FoxNews.com.

Aufenanger primarily uses an app called Proloquo2Go, which turns the iPad into a speech output device. “For all of these kids who are either nonverbal or very early emergent verbal, it gives them a voice,” Aufenanger says.

One student could only make verbal approximations, but Aufenanger says his words are getting much clearer as he is listening to the iPad model the words for him.

While students progress and build their vocabulary, another app called Sonoflex is integrated into the learning curriculum.

Kharon, who is 10, with the guidance of his speech teacher, Lori Resetar has found this app to be greatly beneficial. 

“The Sonoflex app allows him to not only find single words, but sentences, and work with appropriate grammar,” Resetar told FoxNews.com. “It’s all color-coded, so he knows that verbs are always green, adjectives are always blue.”

“I’ve seen Kharon go from only being able to make sounds to being able to make full words, and now he is trying to form two words together…also with the iPad he is able to structure a full sentence” Odon says proudly of her son.

Resetar started speech therapy with Kharon using a handmade picture book, but he ran out of the room to post new objects. She says the iPad gives him endless options.

“When we exposed him to this, the expression on his face was like ‘wow this is what I’ve been looking for, this is what I need,’” Resetar said.

Spending some time with Kharon and using the iPad, it was clear to see how excited he became after using new words and forming complete thoughts like “close the door,” or “blow up the balloon.”

A machine to help autistic people communicate by facilitating speaking is nothing new. However, past technology was much heavier, cumbersome and definitely stuck out.

Principal Ritholtz points out that the iPads add a cool factor. “Everyone is walking around with an iPad, everyone is not walking around with a big communication machine on their hip.”

Leslie Schecht, director of technology, introduced the iPads to PS176, training both teachers and parents of not only autistic students, but also students who are using wheelchairs.  

“They can’t access information, so imagine an iPad that’s on a certain mount giving them access to information like email, and things like Dragon Dictation, so they can dictate their notes and play it back,” Schecht told FoxNews.com. 

AutismApps  is a resource for teachers, parents and students to find specific apps to help those diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome, or other specials needs. The free comprehensive list was put together by specialists with first-hand experience and offers video demonstrations.

The in-school and at-home benefits of having an iPad are proven, but not all schools can finance incorporating iPads into the curriculum. Ritholtz points out that their public school is lucky to have some access thanks to donations which will hopefully continue, as technology is always evolving.

“It’s opening up the world of communication and access for these kids that they never had before,” Schecht says.