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The iPad—Breaking New Ground in Special Education

Apple's iPad has received an unanticipated reaction from the autistic community.

After the release of the iPad, 3 million of which were sold in just 80 days, Apple received an unanticipated reaction from the autistic community. Unknowingly, the company may have stumbled upon a revolutionary framework to change the future of special education technology.

The iPad has the same multitouch capabilities as the iPhone, although the screen is larger—approximately 10 inches. Its lightweight nature makes the iPad portable, and its touchscreen is visually appealing, capturing the attention of special education students. Many different applications can be downloaded to the iPad to maintain schedules, tell stories, learn lessons, and reinforce positive behavior. Application capability aside, Apple products are a fraction of the cost of other communication devices from companies such as Dyno Vox and Prentke Romich Co., which can cost upwards of $10,000.

One of the most popular, and most expensive at $189.99, applications is Proloquo2Go, which is available for the iPhone or iPad. This application is used for augmentative and alternative communication and provides natural sounding text-to-speech voices. The application list for communication, social skills, math, behavioral skills, and language arts is long—and growing.

The touchscreen capabilities of the iPad—along with its predecessors the iPod Touch and iPhone—have stirred interest among developers to create applications to suit the needs of special education students.

"There are so many different features developers can put into these applications," says Eric Sailers, a speech-language pathologist at La Mesa Spring Valley (Calif.) School District. "It's creating a multisensory product for children with autism and special needs. Kids who used to have difficulty using a mouse on a computer can use their fingers to touch and drag things and get immersed in the application."

Janet Lishman, cofounder of the Autism Education Network and the Bay School, finds the iPad's scheduling aspects to be the most effective, especially with her own children. "The structure of the schedules is really what works best," says Lishman. "Long ago children would write their schedules on clipboards and carry them around. Now these schedules have words, pictures and audio reminders to stop one task and start another."

Pilot Studies

Bill Thompson, a school psychologist with the Orange County (Calif.) Department of Education, is charting the iPad's effectiveness with his students. The Orange County DOE has a special education program that consists of approximately 500 students from the districts within the county. This year, these students began pilot studies to see how well the device aligns with their curriculum and to evaluate its cost-effectiveness. The program currently has 10 iPads that are used with all students at some point in the day. Five of these 10 are under Thompson's watch as he tries to develop a uniform policy for their use.

Thompson began noticing the advantages of touchscreen devices three years ago with the launch of the iPod Touch. Thompson himself developed two special education applications: Look2Learn and Stories2Learn. Look2Learn helps students develop communication skills by expressing their needs with recorded audio and photos, while Stories2Learn allows students, parents and educators to create personalized stories to demonstrate personal cues and teach social messages. Both are available for the public to purchase and download.

"We are able to do things that we couldn't do with a single-use device," says Thompson. "We can work with one student who is learning letters and shapes, then turn around and use it with another student who is learning yes or no questions. The applications allow for so many different levels and have so many purposes. It's really critical for schools."

According to Thompson, the Apple touchscreen products are more affordable than other single-use special education devices on the market; however their ability to serve other functions, such as delivering music, movies and Web content, may make them less desirable for funding by insurance companies.

In time, pilot studies being conducted in classrooms around the country will paint a picture of how these devices impact autistic students. In the meantime, many educators in the autistic community may agree with Lishman on the iPad: "For autism, it's a dream."