Special Tools for Special Needs: PalmPilots Help Kids Cope

Handheld technology gives autistic students a learning boost -- and a social one.

Handheld technology gives autistic students a learning boost -- and a social one.
Special Tools for Special Needs: Palm Pilots Help Kids Cope

Lynn Parsons, a special education teacher who runs an after-school social-skills program at Birdville High School, outside of Fort Worth, Texas, gives half of her dozen autistic students a Palm T|X to use throughout the year. One of the many things they do with this handheld device is take pictures of their pets, which they later share with classmates. "It enables them to initiate more social interactions than they would otherwise," Parsons says.

But the mother of one autistic student, noting the handheld's audio features, wanted the Palm T|X to literally speak to her son, a freshman who'd found shuttling between classes and teachers in a new building overwhelming. Parsons, who knew that the boy's younger brother enjoyed making videos, suggested an alternative: Have the younger boy film and narrate a walk-through of his older sibling's typical day. It worked. The freshman watched the video repeatedly, thus becoming comfortable with the new routine, and returned to school. "His mother told me, 'You're a genius,'" Parsons recalls. "I said, 'I'm not a genius. This is just a video camera.'"

In special education parlance, assistive technology, or AT, is any piece of equipment used to improve a student's functional capabilities; it could be as simple as a pencil with a rubber grip or as sophisticated as a computer enhanced for use by a quadriplegic. (See the Edutopia article, "Assistive Technology: Enhanced Learning for All.") According to Parsons, whatever the tool, it has to be usefully integrated in a way that suits a student's needs. In fact, many AT practitioners believe that the diagnostic label a special-needs student has is far less significant than the specific challenges he or she faces, which along the autism spectrum range in type and degree.

"The idea for all technology is to augment, to build on the knowledge and skills that students bring to each task," explains Joy Zabala, a renowned AT specialist working with the Massachusetts-based Center for Applied Special Technology. She points out that the biggest challenges for autistic students relate to "communication, socialization, and task completion."

Well-resourced public schools address all three these challenges in common ways with high tech AT. Voice-recognition software and assistive-writing devices, for example, help those with language or fine-motor deficits. Audio-text software and graphic organizers not only highlight sections of text, thus accommodating focused reading, they also help students write down notes and question prompts, which aids in organization and comprehension.

"These kinds of software that help students pay attention and do their work are huge," observes Jeanne Dwyer, program coordinator for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education.

But if the aim is eventually to go beyond the curriculum to help autistic students become self-sufficient adults, then the use of handheld devices may become key. "AT has to be handheld, portable, and intuitive for student to use," Dwyer says.

This idea has already taken hold at Birdville High School, part of a tech-friendly district in which all teachers get training in computer basics. Those who take extra classes receive Palm devices, so it shouldn't be a surprise that when Parsons took over the social-skills program six years ago, handhelds were already in circulation among high-functioning autistic students.

Early on, the students used the "primitive" Palm m515 mostly for organization. Parsons notes that most autistic students have a structured mind-set: "You do schoolwork at school, not at home." The Palm enabled them to keep track of assignments in both locations, with alarm settings serving as reminders. A couple of years later, an upgrade in equipment to the Palm T|X brought with it a color palette (good for the visually oriented, as autistic students often are) as well as picture taking and audio and video features.

Soon, it became a socialization tool. Students, for example, who'd never bothered to learn teachers' or classmates' names could now take photos and attach names to faces for memorization purposes. Students also program social cues into the Palms -- everything from what to say to classmates during lunch ("How's your day going?") to proper etiquette at funerals, a place where "everything's different socially from anything they've done before," Parsons states.

Part of what is appealing about all handhelds -- Palms, BlackBerrys, mp3 players -- is the social cachet they bring with them. "As they take the handheld out and use it in class, other students ask them about it," Parsons says, "so they're considered cool for the first time in their lives."

The Palm also offers a means of expression. Because it's something of a personal repository -- for lists, photos, favorite songs -- the logical next step, when it's connected to a keyboard, is to pour one's thoughts into the device. "Kids I could barely get to write a couple of sentences will write a couple of pages," Parsons reports. One student even wrote a novel.

Parsons, who has a master's degree in integrating technology, doesn't limit AT to handheld devices. She's also used videos to teach social skills and says PowerPoint is a favorite among autistic students; they've used it in slide shows on interpreting facial expressions. Geocaching, the treasure-finding game that involves the use of a global-positioning system (GPS) device, is another big hit that not only demands collaboration but also requires following directions, which is a challenge for these kids, Parsons notes.

Parsons's work is representative of what Joy Zabala believes all educators should do with assistive technology -- lower barriers. She cautions, however, that no matter what the tool is, it should be something educators, parents, and students find useful. "Is the technology you're using leading toward the goal you have, or is it just cool?" she asks.

Rich Shea is a freelance writer in Maryland.

This article originally published on 3/19/2008

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Comments (17)

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Anonymous (not verified)

re: after school program

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I live in Vancouver Canada and would like to start an after school special needs program. Could you please send me info on start up and how you set up and how you acessed funding and how you found an appropriate space. Anything you think of that might help me please send me. I thank you in advance for your input and help. Shawn Braddcik

Mrs. E (not verified)

re: grants for my special needs students

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I just wonder where I can get help to fund technology equipments for my 17 special needs students. I am certain that this will be beneficial for them. My school is within high-need community. We have 1 LCD projector in the building that aboout 40 people share. I have 2 computers for my students to use. However, I know that Power Point Prsentation will surely reinforce learning if only we have the equipment. I have tried applying for a visualizer but it's taking a long time. I need help please!!! By the way, I am from Little Rock. AR.
Thanks!!!!

Sheila Bliss (not verified)

Autism with disability

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Being a parent of an autistic 4-year old, and an 8-year old suspected of autism; I take offense to those who are offended about the label "autism" being considered a disability. The spectrum of autism is not completely understood -- so it's all labeled "autism" whether it's austism with disability or not autism with disability. That's because autism is not yet understood to the degree of being able to separate the disability from the way the person "is" (the autism -- the different pattern of thinking)

My 4-year old who also has seizures, used to rip the shades down in my house, and break things, and run away from home during the year he was 3 and lack of language and so much more. That's a disability! His behaviors and short-comings are all thrown under the title of "autism" as his disability. Since then I have gotten him on supplements (such as heavy metal chelator in the form of Waiora zeolite) and he doesn't run away from home or escape the backyard or rip things down in my house and break things. He still has a long ways to go for becoming functional for his age.

"Autism" as it has been defined CAN be a disability. And I'm offended by anyone who'd say the autism my child has isn't a disability.

But I predict in the future autism will be understood to the clarity of realizing what is simply autism without disability, and autism with disability.

As I understand autism without disability -- it's no worse than the left-handed person needing to adapt themselves to a world that caters to right-handed people. We don't call the left-handed person as one with a disability (unless they have a disability with it). Autistic people adapt themselves to living in a world that caters to people who view things differently than autistic people do -- to the extent that we choose to adapt to understanding the "normal" way of thinking anyway.

So I guess I can understand an autistic person without disability being offended by "autism" being called a disability. But, people, such as my 4-year old, who is getting special services based on the label of "autism" -- really does have a disabilities going on that are unique in their manifestations because of his autism. In other words, his natural autistic ways of viewing the world have been hampered by disabling conditions that bring out symptoms that wouldn't occur with someone without natural autistic ways of viewing the world. Just a theory of mine based on introspection of my own life of childhood into adulthood, and what I'm seeing happening to autistic children with severely disabling conditions happening to them. I didn't have the severely disabling conditions, but these severely disabling conditions are happening uniquely to autistic people. I haven't been diagnosed autistic myself -- but I'm thinking of pursuing it. It'd confirm what I suspect -- that I naturally view the world drastically different than that of "normal" thinkers.

D_M (not verified)

I'm Autistic and Offended by Autists

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The intent of the person-first rule is to emphasize our common humanity instead of our differences. It is not meant to instill fear or negativity toward the "with autism" modifier, but to imply that before all else, we are first and foremost people.

However, most autists don't see it that way. They base their whole sense of identity on their differences from others, not similarities. Some consider themselves to be a separate race or even a separate species from the rest of humanity. Those who choose the autist label often hold an X-Men-esque view of themselves, a sense of their own superiority, and a disdain for others. I find this separatist attitude offensive, as is the derision aimed at me by autists who don't agree with my view of myself as a person. I'm a person who differs from what is typical, yes, but I am a person. Austists would much rather I saw myself as a completely different kind of creature than the rest of humanity.

I don't care if you call me an autistic man, a man with autism, or even an autist, as long as the intent is appropriate.

MollyB (not verified)

I'm Autistic

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Your person-first rule may be lovely in other situations, but in this case makes autism into a big, scary thing. Or reflects your view of it as such. Not that it's an either/or situation.

It's tough in English, but I'll just modify the grammar a bit: I'm an autist. In French that would be je suis autiste; in German, ich bin Autistin. Not a bad thing at all. It only is so if you insist on pathologising it. Which, of course, you have the right to do if you need to because of your own personal-emotional-mental limitations. We've all got 'em.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind being called a r* (guess the word is now banned), as long as the support I need is accessible. Or hey, I'll settle for merely not having supportive structures I've manage to work out on my own ripped out from under me. Seems even that's a heck of a lot to ask.

I highly object to the term "intellectual disability." That should be reserved for those ignorant enough of their own language to have come up with it.

Anonymous (not verified)

Students with autism

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Always use people first language....these are students WITH autism not autistic students.
Thank you.

Lisa (not verified)

Palm Pilots for kids

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I was so excited to see this information. Iam thinking of a student that my benefit from trying this. The fact that other kids see it as "COOL" could definately make it appealing to him.

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