Teachers of students with autism say it's the year of the iPad.
It provides motivation. It helps with therapy and handwriting practice. It even models appropriate ways to share toys or take turns.
For 7-year-old Joshua Brooks of Glen Ellyn, the device has educational, therapeutic and entertainment value -- something teachers and parents say they're recognizing more these days.
"It's really been a great tool," said Joshua's mother, Lisa Brooks. "We use it for a combination of enjoyment activities for him and also educational components. He prefers playing the games and the various apps that are on there, and we use the iPad with him a lot as a motivational tool."
iPads are being used more often for students with autism because the devices help nonverbal children communicate. They're also liked for their easy portability and the visual learning experiences they provide, educators say.
"It's been the new rage this school year," said Julie Zajac, who programs and repairs all assistive communication devices for students at Giant Steps, a Lisle school for children with autism. iPads "combine all the things that children with autism crave, and the technology is definitely what they crave."
Technology and apps on the iPad allow children such as Joshua, a Giant Steps first grader, to practice speech or handwriting, play games or watch video models of social situations to help them learn the appropriate way to interact with others.
"You don't have to teach him any technology; he just instinctively knows what to do with it," Brooks said. "For someone whose brain works that way, the iPad is a fantastic tool."
School districts throughout the suburbs are providing more iPads for individual students and classroom use; teachers say they're excited about the technology's benefits.
"Our kids typically are so motivated by technology and are definitely motivated by the iPad," said Amanda Santiago, special education director for elementary grade levels at Giant Steps. "If we take that motivation and we include academics and even support, our kids respond so much better to the iPad than to any other type of interface we've used."
Giant Steps has 30 iPads available for junior high and high school students and two or three available in each elementary classroom, Santiago said. But in addition to the devices Giant Steps provides, some students bring in their own iPads provided by the school district in which they live or those purchased by their parents.
Giant Steps third grader Justin Hafner, 9, of Joliet, uses an iPad provided by Troy School District 30-C to help him communicate at school. At home, he can express himself orally, but at school, he rarely speaks in complete sentences without technological aid, said his mother, Rorre Hafner.
Before school districts issue any assistive technology such as an iPad, students are evaluated by a team of therapists and specialists, school officials said.
If it's determined a student requires an iPad to communicate effectively, the district is responsible for providing one. The same goes for any other communication device or piece of assistive technology, said Ellen Teelucksingh, assistant superintendent for special services in Lombard Elementary District 44.
But some assistive technology devices cost more than others. In the realm of devices that can help nonverbal students with autism communicate, some can cost about $2,500, while the iPad 2 is about $500.
In Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200, iPads or other speech devices given to students go back and fourth between home and school, but only after a student's parents are trained on how to use them, Jefferson Preschool Principal Stephanie Farrelly said.
The district's technology program is designed to allow assistive technology such as an iPad to stay with a student all the way through high school if it's still needed, said Mary Iffert, a school psychologist who helps with technology for special needs students at Jefferson Preschool.
As students with autism and other special needs try out iPads for use in communication, education, therapy and entertainment, they're likely to become even more widely used, educators say.
"I think as with all technology, it's a great tool," Iffert said about the iPad. "We would be far remiss if we didn't try to take advantage of it as far as we could."