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Tech time
iPads open new world of learning to CES students with autism
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Students Drew and Owen prepare themselves for their designated sensory time. Harwell-Taylor said children with autism need structure and more sensory time and she has found the iPads useful for them. - photo by Miciah Bennett

Kershaw County School District (KCSD) ninth-graders may be excited about getting iPads next year, but students in Melanee Harwell-Taylor’s autistic students at Camden Elementary School are already seasoned iPad techies.

New data published by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in late March said autism affects one in 88 children in the United States and one in 54 boys in the United States. Autism is a neurobiological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges. It spans across all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and is the fastest-growing diagnosed disability. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than the number of people diagnosed with AIDS, diabetes, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome and cancer combined, according to Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy program.

April is Autism Awareness Month. The school district and the county will partner to hold Special Olympics locally April 13 beginning at 9:15 a.m., and many groups around the world hold an annual autism walk during the month of April. On April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, countries around the world shone a blue light on “iconic landmarks” in support of people with autism.

Through the Individual Disabilities Education Act, KCSD Director for Special Services Deborah Davis bought 40 iPads to use within the special education sector of the school district. Although there is limited data because of the newness of the iPads and apps, there has been research on how iPads can help students with autism.  There are several websites that offer advice on apps for people with special needs such as Apps For Children With Special Needs at a4cwsn.com. Teacher Melanie Harwell-Taylor, or “H-T,” as the students call her, was given five iPads for students to use and one iPad for instructional use as a part of a pilot program. 

The iPads make new options available for sensory time, Harwell-Taylor said. Her seven students -- Hassan, Matthew, Drew, Steven, Takiya, Austin and Owen -- use their SMART Board each morning for their morning lessons, use Zackbrowser.com, an Internet site for children with autism, and now they use their iPads.

There are a lot of applications that can be useful to students with autism, Harwell-Taylor said. Now that the district is purchasing iPads for ninth-graders and is looking into various academic programs, the special education program might have access to even more app options because of the research being done on the district level.

Structure is the key to success in Harwell-Taylor’s class; the day is “highly-regimented,” Harwell-Taylor said. The goal is to make children with autism as mainstream, behaviorwise, as possible. By the time they reach Harwell-Taylor’s class, however, all interventions have been completed without long-lasting effectiveness. The student’s parents, teachers and administrators come together and decide what’s best for the student. Still, students benefit from the latest technology just like mainstream children.

“Children with autism need a higher level of support and sensory time,” Harwell-Taylor explained.

There are many applications that come programmed on the iPads, as well as free apps which Harwell-Taylor said benefit students right now. She said she would like to see the students use Facetime to connect with people in other classrooms and in the district office. One concept Harwell-Taylor would like to try is Facetime story time, where other people in the district who have iPads can read books to her students on the iPads. The students like Angry Birds and Harwell-Taylor bought a stylus for each iPad, which works well in drawing apps. Photobooth is the students’ favorite program, Harwell-Taylor said. The students ask to take other’s pictures, which is great for their social skills. Photobooth is also beneficial to children with autism by helping them to understand their moods and what they look like happy or sad, Harwell-Taylor said. One of the parents of a student in Harwell-Taylor’s class is going to create music videos with pictures of the students and pictures that the students take. One app that Harwell-Taylor said she believes would be good for students with autism across the district allows special education teachers to record their voices for spelling tests.

“We’ve got a lot of things to do with the free programs, but they only go so far,” Harwell-Taylor said.

Harwell-Taylor raised $400 through a project with her class. She and her students painted pictures of owls, the Camden Elementary mascot, and finished them off with donated picture frames which were sold for $20 each. She used the money to buy big grips to cover the iPads and iPad stands.

Although the ability to experience and grow through technology is important, students with autism also need help socializing with others.

Camden Elementary’s special education classes have a buddy program where students from other grades team with students with special needs for activities. Harwell-Taylor’s class partners with Alana Powers’ fourth-grade class to do art projects, read and have an occasional holiday party. Harwell-Taylor and Powers co-plan activities for their students to share each Friday.

In order to foster understanding of autism and children with autism, Harwell-Taylor led the fourth-graders through sensitivity training before they started the buddy program. She took a pack of Dum Dums and switched all of their wrappers so students would have a sucker that didn’t match what the wrapper said to show the youngsters that their expectations may fail them. Both groups of students benefit from the experience of interacting with each other, Harwell-Taylor said.

Ten-year-old Tate Abbott and John Copley, 9, said being a buddy for students with autism is “a great opportunity to learn.”

 “It helps show our class how grateful we should be with our lives because we see what the buddies have to go through,” John said.

Harwell-Taylor has been working in the KCSD for three years, with 11 years of experience in other counties within the state. She has two teacher aides, Barbara Johnson and Virginia Johnson, who both made a career of working with people with special needs. With the technology the district is looking into and the iPad apps available to special needs teachers, Harwell-Taylor said she is looking forward to what she and other special needs teachers will be able to do within the next few years.

Camden Middle School, which many of her students will eventually attend, uses iPads with their students with autism, so the work Harwell-Taylor and her teacher aides have put into helping their students familiarize themselves with the iPads won’t go to waste.

 “I don’t worry about my babies moving up,” she said.