Technology helps children deal with autism in school

  • John Reisel, 12, center, uses an iPad at South Middle School in Arlington Heights to help him cope with autism symptoms.

    John Reisel, 12, center, uses an iPad at South Middle School in Arlington Heights to help him cope with autism symptoms.

By Janice Youngwith
Updated 3/1/2011 1:40 PM

From robots to telemedicine, 21st century technology is bringing the future into homes and schools across the suburbs -- and at the same time leveling the playing field for students with special needs.

That's good news for 12-year-old John Reisel, a sixth-grader at South Middle School in Arlington Heights, who is among a growing number of children struggling with the challenges of autism or an autism spectrum disorder. John uses iPad and iTouch technology in the classroom.


"Parents, educators and families with children on the autism spectrum are desperate for solutions and resources to help develop cognitive, communication and social skills," says Mary Beth Delaney, John's communication class special education teacher who is also a certified speech pathologist. "But the technology previously available to support those needs often was expensive and limited in use."

Delaney applauds the versatility, convenience, affordability and portability of new iTouch and iPad technology now in use in her classroom and many classrooms across the suburbs.

Classroom applications

Used in conjunction with classroom Wi-Fi, Delaney says the devices help address a variety of challenges faced by her students with autism.

"Structure is extremely important to our day and so is being able to predict what could happen due to circumstances like changing weather, a shortened school day or special event," explains Delaney, who says checking the weather channel each morning is one way students can understand their surroundings and help predict what the changing weather could mean for outdoor recess or physical education class.

She also applauds applications like Locabulary that provide vocabulary references for local venues including sample restaurant menus.

"It's nice to be able to understand differences in terminology before ordering a small, tall or medium drink, or a large or super-sized item," explains Delaney, who says challenges to social and communication skills common to autism can lead to confusion, frustration and meltdown without prior planning.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Like most American tweens and teens, John and his triplet siblings, Maggie and Vincent, are no strangers to digital technology.

John especially loves using classroom iPad applications like Creationary, a Lego building program asking users to guess outcomes offering practice in making predictions, and the free touch-screen drawing programs which enhance eye-hand coordination and social skills as he works with another student or his teacher to complete a final project.

"John was able to bring the classroom iPad home during the winter recess and we discovered immediate success," recalls Eileen Reisel, John's mother, who noticed how the device enhanced her son's communication skills. She said she recently, with some help from extended family, invested in an iPad for John.

"The social skills and emotion-recognition applications are helping him better understand his actions and those of people around him."

In addition to basic classroom applications, iPad and iTouch users report success with everything from scheduling and behavior-management applications to basic and augmentive communication.

Lending a voice

Proloquo2Go, one of the newest full-featured augmented communication applications for those who have difficulty speaking, is meeting with rave reviews from educators and therapists. While not nearly as comprehensive as high-tech offerings like Dynavox and Prentke Romach devices, which can range in price from $3,000-$10,000, Proloquo2Go ($189) when used with an iTouch or iPad, offers an affordable, less bulky and portable communication tool.


"One reason the iPad and iTouch seem so successful for children with autism is that these children know what to expect as they interact with the technology," explains Sara Cohen, foundation relations manager at Easter Seals of DuPage and the Fox Valley Region, an outpatient pediatric rehabilitation center which recently received a $40,000 Tellabs grant to purchase the Apple technology and Proloquo2Go software. "Because children with autism typically cannot anticipate or interpret human emotions and expressions, they seem to thrive with this technology, which has predictable reactions."

According to Cohen, Easter Seals has experienced a nearly 40 percent increase in children with a primary diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or who exhibit signs of an autism spectrum disorder, and now has a new strategic goal related to autism services.

"Our therapists who currently work with children with an autism spectrum disorder have noticed one common thread -- an inability to connect with their world," she says. "An amazing result of the huge growth in technology, particularly the iTouch and iPad, is the creation of applications which significantly help these children relate to their world more successfully than traditional therapies."

In addition to 12 new iPads, eight iTouches and special software, grant monies will provide training for therapists and parents at each of the organization's three locations in Villa Park, Elgin and Naperville.

While the technology is geared toward clients diagnosed with autism, Cohen says it also has been found to be successful in children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, apraxia, developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.

Easter Seals of DuPage and the Fox Valley Region provides services for infants, children and adults with disabilities to achieve maximum independence and to provide support for the families who love and care for them. For information call (630) 620-4433.

For support, information and resources relating to autism, contact the Autism Society of Illinois, 2200 S. Main St., Suite 205, Lombard, by phone at (630) 691-1270 or e-mail