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Technology gives special-needs kids a voice
Challenged Child and Friends teacher Sybil Schneider works with student Edwin Molina as he does a lesson on an iPad. - photo by Tom Reed

Four-year-old Edwin Molina smiles sweetly at his teacher as he presses a button on his iPad telling her he’d like to play with toy cars.

She smiles back at him placing two Hot Wheels in front of him as he presses the button over and over again — his way of expressing his eagerness.

Edwin, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, has difficulty using words to express his needs and wants. His condition also effects his mobility and fine motor skills.

A few months ago, Edwin relied on his teachers and parents to carry him from room to room and to figure out his needs and wants.

But recently, Edwin has become a bit more independent thanks to technology.

In addition to the iPad, Edwin is now using a power chair to move from room to room and to play with his friends.

Sybil Schneider, Edwin’s teacher, said since he started using both devices, she has watched the little boy’s entire world open up.

“Now he can tell us ‘no’ and tell us what he wants to do,” Schneider said. “He’s listening so much better too. He’s really getting to develop his personality.”

LeeAnn Nixon, program director of Challenged Child and Friends Inc., said advancements in technology like the iPad have provided so many opportunities for children with various disabilities.

Nixon explained that children with autism in particular seem to take quickly to the iPad. She said that because children with autism often experience communication delays, giving them an alternate way of communicating can help a child become more self-confident. Behavioral issues often decrease as a result.

“If you realize they have the intent to communicate but no mode to communicate, and then you give them a way to do it, you start to see a lot of inappropriate behaviors decrease,” Nixon said. “Once you give them an appropriate way to manipulate their environment, you’ll see a lot of those inappropriate ways go away.”

In addition to having all of the regular computer functions of an iPad, children and adults with disabilities can download specific apvps to help meet their individual needs.

Some apps, like the one Edwin uses to communicate, are fairly simple and involve using pictures instead of words to convey thoughts. Others allow people with fine motor difficulties to use their fist, eyes or voice to navigate Web pages and apps on the device.

Julie King, a speech-language pathologist for Gainesville City Schools, said she’s constantly amazed by the speed at which new apps, devices and programs become available.

King has been working with children who have communication difficulties for the last 20 years. She currently works with elementary and pre-school age children.

She said in the past, she or parents would have to work their way up the chain of command, from primary care physicians to medical specialists, to get expensive devices to help their children.

“But now the tables have turned,” King said. “It’s just so available to parents. Parents can really, with very little effort, reach out and use things that we just would not have dreamed of 10 years ago.”

King said that parents don’t necessarily have to invest in hand-held devices. They can use simple images they find online — through sites like Pinterest, a content sharing website, or Google images — to help their children communicate ideas.

Communication is such a basic part of life, that once children who have difficulty expressing themselves find a way to share their thoughts, their worlds expand and new opportunities open to them.

“Having that ability to reach out to other people early on makes a person build self-esteem,” King said. “It helps them to get their wants and needs when they need it. In the old days it was ‘Am I wet, am I hungry?’ Now it’s ‘Am I curious? I want to know more. Can I see more?’ We’re getting kids to think in pictures which is a big difference. It used to be words now it’s pictures, pictures, pictures.”

Another benefit to the new smaller computer devices like the iPad, is that so many people have them. It’s not uncommon to see someone using a device out in public.

“The old communication devices are bulky and not functional,” Nixon said. “Now it’s socially appropriate, it’s not going to make them stand out like a sore thumb.”

Overall, educators for children with disabilities are excited about the future and how continued improvements will be able to help their students interact with the world and lead meaningful, active lives.

King said she’s most excited about the social opportunities that will be available to children with disabilities because of technology.

“They’ll be able to not only express themselves and ask questions but make friends and make social connections with other people,” King said. “Which we’ve found through research has been even more important than academic growth.”

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