TORONTO - Four-year-old Satu Kuisma smiles as she finds a picture of herself and touches it on the screen.
When teacher Sabrina Morey asks the kindergartner to tell her what she did in class that day, Satu taps away on the iPad, selecting pictures for eating, drawing and playing on swings.
Communication can be a struggle for Satu, who has a rare chromosome disorder. Born at just 2 1/2 pounds, she has had developmental delays, one of the most prominent being her speech. But she's among dozens of non-verbal children at a Toronto school who are learning to communicate through touch technology.
Satu and the other students at the Beverley School are involved in a research project with University of Toronto professor Rhonda McEwen aimed at determining if devices like iPads make it easier for developmentally challenged children to communicate and interact with others.
So far, McEwen says, the answer is yes.
"These touch devices are in some ways bridging communications deficits that students who are non-verbal and who have some kind of developmental disorder have," says McEwen.
Beverley is a school for students with a range of physical and mental challenges, including autism and deaf-blindness. In November 2009, Morey brought her iPhone to class and kids who had been reluctant to communicate using picture cards "were immediately hooked," she says.
Morey and fellow teacher Stacie Carroll developed a program where the pupils use an iPad or iPhone in 13 classrooms. Their curriculum includes about 230 applications, such as Proloquo2Go, which features text-to-speech voices and almost 8,000 symbols, and iCommunicate.
McEwen collected data on 36 students, including detailed assessments on 12 for Phase 1 of her study last year. Phase 2 finishes in June. She has found on average, a 20 per cent improvement in students' ability to communicate using symbols.
Satu uses a few words, sign language and pictures to communicate. Her mother Suvi Kuisma is pleased with her daughter's progress and hopes she will use her iPod Touch at home and school to communicate any time she wants.
"We think some of the apps and videos she's been watching have helped reinforce what she's learning at school, like her recognition of the alphabet, numbers and colours as well as her vocabulary," Kuisma says.
Autistic kids and children who have limited hearing or eyesight have also improved communications skills using the devices, says McEwen.
"They'd find a little game... and go up to another child and attempt to communicate and get joint attention which is one of the big areas that autistic children struggle with," says McEwen.
Four-year-old Farhan Ahmod, who has autism, is just learning how to use the iPad. With help from Carroll, he points to the images for noodles and a drink box he wants for lunch.
"A lot of autistic children can't read emotions," says principal Alana Grossman. "They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the teacher wants."
But using the iPad, they don't have to work with emotion, she said.
Farhan's father Juber Ahmod said he's seen a big improvement since his son started school and began using the iPad. Farhan responds to his name and sits down and eats when asked, when before he didn't understand.
Students like the device because it lets them work at their own pace and the iPad's voice is not affected by mood or what else is happening in the room, said Carroll.
Satu appears to have mastered the technology. When Morey asks the little girl to find the letter S, she does it on cue and then chooses an image of strawberries as an example of something that starts with that letter.
"Perfect," says Morey.
Amy Gravino and I met back in 2007 when a mutual Graduate School teacher put us in touch. The librarian at Caldwell College and I were friendly. Note to self and all: ALWAYS be nice to the librarians for they are the ones who can make or break you when you are doing research and their brains are filled with a plethora of information. You want to know something just ask the librarian. So Mary the librarian told me about a documentary entitled Normal People Scare Me that was done by a teenager with Asperger Syndrome and his mother. My response was "Normal people scare me too!!!" The librarian also advised that one of the participants in the documentary was a graduate student at Caldwell in the same program as me - how ironic. Her name was Amy Gravino and I didn't know her. As soon as I got home I searched the Internet for Normal People Scare Me because I just NEEDED to get a first person perspective on what it was like to have autism. Here I was working with individuals who had autism and could not speak for themselves while all of their decisions were made for them. I was intrigued and felt that any professional worth their weight in salt needed to "see/hear" a first person perspective from someone with the disorder of the clients they were treating. That night I sent an email to the teenage boy's mother, Keri Bowers both ordering the documentary and telling her what an AMAZING project they had created, that it needed maximum exposure and to ROCK ON! The next day Ms. Bowers emailed me and we talked on the phone later that day. Three months later Learning By Design in collaboration with the Caldwell College Psychology Department and a non-profit parent organization flew Taylor Cross and his mom, Keri Bowers out to NJ for a screening of their documentaries Normal People Scare Me and The Sandwich Kid with questions and answers to follow. Amy Gravino was also part of that day and participated in the Q&A with Taylor. That is how our friendship began and has been running strong ever since. I did not contact Amy to ask her to be involved, I didn't even know her, I didn't want her to feel exploited, I am not smarmy. However, we were put in touch with each other by Dr. Kenneth Reeve because Amy heard about the event and wanted to be a part of it. I was elated!! That was all back in 2007. Between 2007 and 2011 I have seen Amy blossom both personally and professionally. She has been there for me giving advice as much as I have been there for her. Since my undergraduate degree is in Business and Amy's forte is writing, public speaking and self advocacy, I became her business manager. In this capacity I helped her learn how to contract with school districts for her speaking engagements and get paid for it. She then went out on her own and became a certified college coach for individuals, such as herself, with Asperger Syndrome. She then took it a step further and formed her own business called A.S.C.O.T. Check out her website: www.AmyGravino.com Last but not least Amy was asked by Autism Speaks to be 1 of 4 on a panel at The United Nations entitled Panel discussion: Solving the Autism Public Health Puzzle, Regional and International Collaboration. Click on the link and take a view, you won't be sorry: http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/04/panel-discussion-solving-the-autism-public-health-puzzle.html
I am excited to see where Amy ends up next and so, so very proud of her. ROCK ON!
MarbeJam Kids, Inc. is once again producing the Joey Travolta Short Film Camp this Summer at St. Peter's College in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Film Camp will take place August 1st-12th. Last year everyone had a blast and the feedback that MarbleJam Kids received from campers themselves and their parents was OUTSTANDING! This inclusion film camp for those WITH and WITHOUT autism and other special needs is designed for those with an interest in film-making whether it be acting, directing, editing, script writing - this camp provides all campers to do it all - if they so choose. There is also an art room for prop making and plenty of space on the St. Peter's campus to take a walk and scout out shooting locations. So...if you have an interest in any aspect of film or film-making this is the camp for you. It also doesn't look too shabby on college applications. Nowadays it's SOOO competitive and good grades and SAT scores just don't cut it. You need an edge and to stand out from the rest. For more information and to register visit MarbleJam Kids at www.marblejamkids.org. For more information on Joey Travolta and his work visit www.inclusionfilms.com. Click on this link for segment by Dr. Manny Alvarez of Fox News that takes you "inside" last year's film camp which his son attended: http://video.foxnews.com/v/4310681/autism-film-camp
We look forward to seeing you and be ready to start the day out dancin'!!
As a result of receiving training from Joey Travolta via one of his Inclusion Films programs, actor Joe Mantegna's daughter Mia learned anchor interviewing skills and was able to interview her father asking him about his perspective on autism and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! Added Bonus: They were able to show it to the world via the media! Kudos to all!