My iPads for Autism Education Journey

I am aware I’ve blogged previously about the use of iPads in my classroom, but I wanted to expand on this conversation and discuss this issue further.  When I wrote this blog, I was privileged this week to present at the Victorian Dept of Education’s Innovation in Technology Showcase, so I wanted to give you a snapshot of my presentation, my vision, from 2011. I have come a long way from this blog and been working non stop since then to share my learning with my peers. 

So here is my vision, my journey, for autism education. 

How do children with disabilities learn? What are they good at? What are their specialities? What are their gifts? If we ask these questions we come to understand that these children are not disabled at all but are different abled!  From my observations in a classroom with different abled students they have many different abilities: they may have a great memory; or excellent observation skills; some are brilliant artists; others have amazing construction skills; However, one commonality emerges, the majority of these kids are very competent using technology; they connect with technology, and where they have problems in the mainstream arena, they don’t seem to have the same difficulties utilising technology.  

Bearing this in mind I went to the research and was surprised and also elated to find that there is significant research linking technology with significant improvements in students with disabilities and particularly autism’s learning outcomes.   I wondered about a classroom that utilised technology 80% of the time. I visualised how that might look, how could the classroom physically be designed to cater for this? The problem with pcs and laptops to a degree is that they need to be hooked up to a power point all the time and some of the time with laptops (as even on a good day the most you can get out a laptop is about an hour). The other problem with the laptop was that you had to look over the screen to see what the children were doing, as well as look at their faces.   Then along came the iPad. I owned an iTouch and was convinced that if the iPad was similar, but was physically bigger, then this could have extraordinary implications and quite possibly could be the answer to my question. 
They were small enough to sit on the desk; with a case they could be tilted; as a teacher I could sit anywhere and observe how the student was working; the interface, with the touch screen meant almost any child could use this equipment unaided; visually the graphics are fantastic; and the device is multi-sensory in that the children can physically touch the screen, look at the graphics, listen to the sounds and in many cases use their voices. The only thing it is missing is smell and one day who knows, someday, someone may come up with the idea as to how we might get smell from the screen.  

I’ve been incredibly lucky as last year one parent purchased an iPad for use in the classroom for her child with autism. The results with this one student was remarkable – he sat for up to 40 mins in front of the iPad, was enthusiastic to use the technology, was motivated and asked to ‘do his words’ or ‘do counting’ on the iPad.  There were other benefits as well, he starting writing independently in the classroom, starting writing at home, used more language, and showed significant improvements in behaviour.   Simultaneously, I started to think about his learning and how kids with autism learn, as well as, how best can these different abled children reach their potential?
I thought about asking my student about his learning? So I asked him… “Do you like reading and writing on paper or the iPad”? His answer was emphatic “the iPad”! Next question. Why? “Writing on the paper and the shapes hurts my eyes”. Hmmmm…. Note to self, if you don’t know the answer ask your student.   

My understanding about autism is that these children are sensorially different; their visual world looks different, sounds more heightened, and they are more sensitive to touch, colours, smells etc. So my student’s answer is one I need to heed.   It is incredibly important to ask our students about their learning…..their answers will surprise you! A 9 year old boy I teach flaps his hands to the side of his eyes. Many schools try to prevent this so-called ‘abnormal’ behaviour and set about ‘training’ these kids from doing what comes naturally to them. I asked my student “why do you do that”? His answer, “because it helps my brain to think”. Why would I ever want to stop that behaviour just because it doesn’t look normal to me?  

Back to Ipads. The experience of using one IPad with one student gave me some impetus and I could easily envisage a classroom with an iPad for each student…again I was incredibly lucky to have a school whose leadership understood my vision, or on some level trusted it and purchased 10 iPads – technology sorted, now for the implementation.  
I spent the summer break researching apps and which apps might fit into the daily curriculum.   I looked at the three areas of Literacy: writing, reading and speaking and listening. I found apps that I thought might work. Similarly in Bumeracy, I focused on counting, number recognition, one to one correspondence, simple operations etc. 
There are a lot of stand alone apps that may address counting only or number recognition. I wanted to find apps that were more adaptable, could be tailored to the individual student’s learning needs, and that incorporated more than one concept.   
This is an evolving process because as more apps are developed and as the year continues, I discover what our classroom needs, or what each child needs or asks for. For example I have a student interested in dinosaurs, so I found books, apps, and encyclopaedias relating to dinosaurs. Another, loves Toy Story, so I found stories and apps on Toy Story. 
The brilliance, is that I can set up each iPad to the individual student’s needs. My recommendation is that where possible, try to have one iPad per child. I personally don’t think group sets will work as well.  

The key and salient point to this entire exercise is potential! What is each child’s potential? How can I as an educator ensure all of my students are provided with the best case scenario that enables them to achieve success? For when success is achieved the desire for more success rises. Success begets success. I feel satisfied that using the iPads in my classroom as the student’s primary education tool, that I can provide them with a means by which they can achieve their full potential.  

There is an adage that insanity is when you continue to do the same thing over and over without results… Then why do we continue to do the same thing in education? Change the environment, introduce technology, let go of outmoded ways of thinking, step outside the box, be innovative! 
Develop your own new paradigm and in doing so the students and especially those different abled students also develop a new paradigm: they can achieve, they can have success, they can learn, they can be included in society, they can have full, productive, potentialised lives! Do we not owe them that?   

So back to my classroom…. I have no definitive data yet, but the classroom speaks for itself. The kids are responsible for their iPads and they are very protective of them, they know what is expected of them and they can’t wait to use their iPad, they are incredibly excited and motivated each day to work. They’ve become more student directed and I’ve become the facilitator. Each day is an adventure!  

I’m not saying the iPad is necessarily the panacea, however I think the attitude is; the philosophy is; the innovation is; and ultimately the new paradigm is! When we stop thinking about children with differences as disabled, we start thinking about how we can help them to learn and in doing so become the best that they can be.

– Karina Barley