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Modern tech devices, apps proving to be a powerful aid for special needs children

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Posted: Monday, July 23, 2012 12:00 pm

By Chris McGuinness

Killeen Daily Herald

When it comes to providing assistive technology for her son, a child with special needs, Michelle Bartlett of Temple has used just about everything.

"I used to take photos of things and laminate them, then put them all together in a big binder and he would point to them," said Bartlett, whose son, Jacob, has a form of autism and 4p Minus Syndrome, a condition that effects his development, muscles and fine motor skills. "Things have definitely changed since then."

Today, Bartlett is one of a growing number of parents of special needs children who have purchased Apple's iPad as a tool to help their children communicate and learn. Bartlett said she got Jacob his first iPad in 2010 after doing research online.

"It's appealing because it's easy to use, and portable," said Bartlett. "(Jacob) was able to learn how to use it pretty quickly."

Thanks to the iPad and the downloadable apps offered on it, Jacob now uses the device for everything from communication to learning to entertainment.

"It gives him a chance to interact with others and his environment," she said.

Apps offer aid

The apps offered to help parents of children with special needs and disabilities continues to grow. Some, like Word SLapPs Vocabulary, lets parents upload photos of objects from a child's everyday environment to help them learn new words.

Another, Proloquo2Go, allows children to select small pictures on the tablet's touch screen to create phrases and sentences that the device "speaks."

Those apps range in price from 99 cents for a simple "Yes or No" response button, to $200 for Proloquo2Go.

Killeen parent Robin Kuhnau said her 3½-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, is nearly inseparable from her iPad.

"It was originally a gift from my husband for my birthday," said Kuhnau. "I looked for some apps she'd like, and she started using it, and now it's hers."

Elizabeth is a child with special needs, and is legally blind. Kuhnau said one of her daughter's favorites is an app called I Hear Ewe, which helps toddlers match animals and other objects to the sounds they make.

"The screen is big enough for her to make out shapes and colors, so it works very well for her," said Kuhnau. "Even simple games or the drawing helps her develop her fine-motor skills. It really opened things up for her."

Kuhnau works in the front office of Kidz Therapeze, a center that offers physical, occupational and speech therapy to children in Killeen.

The center's owner and director, Kelly Barr, said more parents are either asking about iPads, or inquiring about purchasing one.

"I think a big part of that is the portability, and ease and accessibility," she said. "I'm a huge fan of them, and I think they are a great tool for the parents and the children."

Other technology

But Apple's mass marketed tablet isn't the only technology available for children with special needs. Barr's center has a number of assistive technologies to help children with physical and speech therapy.

Those include devices made specifically for children with special needs, such as the Dynavox, a touch-sensitive, portable computer that allows users to press buttons to create sentences and phrases, which the device then speaks.

"It really becomes their voice, and talks for them," said Barr. "It's called an augmentative communication device, but it is almost like a voice prostheses."

Barr said the Dynavox is able to create more complex sentences and phrases than the iPad, but costs between $6,000 and $8,000.

In addition to the center's specialized equipment, it has adapted popular technology for assisting the children it serves.

Barr's center uses two motion-controlled video game consoles to help children work on balance and fine-motor skills. The center is equipped with a Nintendo Wii, which uses motion sensitive wands and a balance board to control the games, and the Microsoft XBox Kinnect, which uses a motion sensitive camera.

"It's great because they have something visual to go along with the motor skills activity that they are doing," Barr said. "They are getting feedback and it helps keep them engaged."

Use in schools

Even the Killeen Independent School District's special education department has found use for popular technology. Lynn Young, the district's executive director of special education, said many students use the iPod touch to point to pictures to communicate.

"It's a simple device, but it makes it much easier for them and the teachers," she said.

The district also utilizes technology for its special needs students. One of the most popular and helpful items are touch-screens, which fit over a regular computer monitor to allow students unable to use a mouse to point and select items.

Another is the Lightwriter, a device that rolls over written text and converts it to spoken words.

When it comes to popularity of the iPad with parents, Young said she liked the possibilities the device offered, and wouldn't be surprised to see school districts embracing them in special education classrooms.

"I think it's a very positive thing," she said. "I think this kind of technology really gives these kids a chance to show what they are capable of."

iPad training

With rapidly advancing technology, learning how to use it effectively is critical. Locally, the Education Service Center Region 12 hosts training for teachers and parents on how to use the iPad.

"It's a great tool and it has a lot of possibilities that we haven't seen yet," said Angela Cowan, an autism specialist for Region 12.

Cowan, who has a child with autism, said the device has not only been a great tool, but can give children with special needs a greater sense of inclusion and independence.

"Because they are portable, it can give kids a greater ability to interact with others," she said. "It helps maintain the dignity of the student, and it can give them the ability and confidence to have that social exchange."

Cowan cautioned parents of special needs children not to rush into buying an iPad, or any other assistive technology, without first making sure it's right for their child's specific needs.

Young echoed that sentiment.

"No matter what kind of technology you use, the goal is to remove barriers for the students," she said. "It's the best feeling in the world when you see one of these students' faces light up because they realized what they can accomplish."

Contact Chris McGuinness at chrism@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at ChrismKDH.

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