Touch technology gives autistic children a voice

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[Photo by Sarah Hill] The iPad’s touch technology allows autistic children to communicate in new and more effective ways.
On Aug. 29, the Carmen B. Pingree Center for Children with Autism received a donation of 45 brand-new iPads for students.

“We are so grateful for this donation,” Pingree Center Director Pete Nicholas, Ph.D., said. “It means so much to the children and to the parents. The staff are excited to see improvements in technology that will help unlock some of the hardships children with autism have learning to navigate social and educational waters.”

Markell McCubbin, a teacher at Pingree for the past seven years, has been working using iPads with her students for the past three years. McCubbin said the need for iPads in the classroom came after “60 Minutes” ran a special on iPad apps for children with autism.

“Sixty percent of my students are using an iPad with one app on it called Proloquo2go,” McCubbin said. “So these devices are basically used as the child’s voice. Just imagine if, for one day, you and I had no way of communicating. It would be infuriating! I might resort to hitting or screaming or banging my head because I’m so frustrated. So we see (when) kids with autism have dramatic decreases in that kind of behavior, their ability to focus on stuff increases because people are listening to them.”

McCubbin has spent time programming the iPads, making it possible for the child to express their wants, needs and feelings. With cameras now available on every iPad, selections for “Mom,” “Grandpa” and even a beloved toy can be specific.

“The ability to take pictures, to customize it, is what makes it pretty amazing,” she said. “So this is my picture, and he can say ‘Hi, Markell’ and look at my face, give me a hug or whatever he wants to do. He has all of his teachers, all of his peers. There’s even a section with all of his family members, which makes it accessible tohis life.”

Cheryl Smith, a mother of an autistic son, who was instrumental in facilitating the donation of the iPads, stated that every student in the school could benefit from using and learning with an iPad, which is why the donation was so important.

In the classroom, McCubbin uses the iPad simultaneously with her lessons. They can use it as a whole class, or she may stand and demonstrate before letting the students work individually. Her classroom consists of students from third grade through sixth grade, with children at all levels of development because they are grouped by age, not ability.

McCubbin believes that the ability to communicate is a basic human right. By teaching children with autism to use iPads to communicate, the ripple effect extends beyond the scope of the family of the autistic child to the community around them as well.

“It’s not that these kids don’t have the cognitive function,” McCubbin said. “It’s just that we can’t reach them where they need to be reached. Until we give them a way to communicate. That’s what the iPad does. It can revolutionize families. For a parent to be able to hear ‘I love you.’ Now, the majority of my class can say ‘Okay, thanks for bringing me to school, Mom or Dad. I love you, have a great day.’ Every day they can say that, and that’s something the parents have never experienced before.”

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