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iPad and iPod apps open up world for special needs students

| Friday, March 23, 2012

When Marissa Rega was assigned to teach the special needs students at Clairview School in Greensburg how to use its new iPod Touch devices, she planned to start from the very beginning.

But as soon as Rega put the iPods in front of them, the students turned them on and started using them.

"We don't like to put limitations on them, but even we didn't realize what they could do until we gave it to them," said Rega, the technology integration specialist at Clairview, a Hempfield school operated by the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.

Special educators throughout the region say the iPod and the newer, larger iPad tablet, are becoming an important tool in teaching and communicating with their students.

Special-needs students are using the devices -- and software applications for them -- to learn reading and math along with social and life skills.

And, the devices are holding their attention.

Rega said the iPod has intrigued low-functioning students with autism.

"They're engaged for 20 minutes or more -- an entire period," Rega said. "You can't hold them for two minutes when you're standing in front of them."

Clairview has moving labs of 24 iPod Touch devices acquired in the past two years through a private donation. They have requested 15 more iPads, which are easier for some students to operate.

Cindy Shaffer, curriculum specialist at the IU, said the devices promote independence for students who can't easily use a computer keyboard and a mouse.

The colors, graphics and sounds provide visual and auditory stimulation. Teachers can use apps that suit a student's skill level.

"It just engages so many types of learning styles," Rega said. There are apps for number and letter recognition, adding and subtracting.

A Clairview secondary classroom, geared toward preparing students for life after graduation, was using a job interviewing app, complete with questions employers might ask.

In a life skills class, Renee Frye was teaching a lesson on strangers and had the students use iPods to scan QR codes to reveal pictures of different types of people. The students had to write who the people were -- mailman, doctor -- and determine if they were safe or strangers.

Several Clairview students use their own iPads as communications devices. A $190 application for the iPod and iPad, called Proloquo2Go, gives voice to nonverbal students who touch pre-programmed icons to tell people their needs, wants and feelings.

Devices made just for that function cost thousands of dollars, and Clairview officials said some students' insurance companies will pay for iPads.

At the Highlands Hospital Center for Autism, a licensed private school in Connellsville that opened in September, the staff purchased a few iPads for students to try out.

One student uses her own iPad to communicate with teachers because she can't form words.

"It's been fabulous for her. She's answering social questions now," said Amanda Freger, director of autism services for Highlands. "She's able to point and say, 'I need to go to the bathroom. I need help opening (something) for lunch.'"

Freger said other families of Highlands students are interested in the iPad for their autistic children, though it's important to have them set up with the appropriate apps.

"The sky's the limit with these things," Freger said. "It's a blessing."

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