On a cold January afternoon in Hershey, a visitor knocks on the Capitani family’s front door.
From behind his mother’s legs, 6-year-old Caden peers with big, curious, brown eyes at the stranger. he hoots and dances with excitement as pleasantries are exchanged.
Once mom is out of the way, he quickly approaches, clutching an Apple iPad in his hands. As a backup for his boyish grip, the iPad is slung around his neck on a black nylon strap. The specially designed case nestled around it shows signs of wear and tear.
His eyes lock onto the screen as he subconsciously furrows his forehead in concentration while he taps his fingers across the glass surface.
Caden giggles with delight as a male voice — in stilted universal computerized English — issues from the machine in his hands: “hello, my name is Caden.”
It is a simple statement of fact, one that we exchange a million times each day. but for a child who cannot say more than one word at a time, it is a momentous statement all the same.
Aide, sign language help
There is nothing more frustrating than being unable to effectively communicate, to express one’s thoughts, wants or needs to our fellow man. our ability to do so is the very base of our civilization, one of the keystones of what it means to be human.
Caden was born with down syndrome.
The genetic condition has left its mark on his life in myriad ways. among its most expressive traits is his struggle to engage in verbal communication beyond simple sounds and words.
A conversation with Jessica Capitani, his mother, relies on a hodgepodge of American Sign Language, monosyllabic words and facial expressions.
Language for the family remains a work in progress — Caden and his parents are always learning new signs — but the mixture has, for the most part, worked.
However, to say Caden’s unique language barriers made integration into a public school setting a challenge would be an understatement.
At the Early Childhood Center in Derry Twp., where he attends first grade, Caden is heavily reliant on his aide, Pam Yocum. she is fluent in American Sign Language and has been teaching it to Caden in addition to helping him with his regular studies.
However, his use of sign language was a barrier not only to interacting with other children his age, but with his teachers as well.
Yocum was the only person in the classroom capable of signing. If she wasn’t around to help, he could quickly become frustrated with his inability to express his thoughts.
As a result, Jessica was afraid he would act out and become a disruptive presence in the classroom. Last summer, with Caden headed to first grade, his family started looking for other options.
An ‘amazing’ iPad program
The use of machines to assist in communications is not a novel idea. For more than 50 years, people with disabilities have been using technology to communicate.
Early devices were neither portable nor affordable.
An original lightspot-operated typewriter, which used a head-mounted light to type, cost upwards of $40,000 and required a typewriter and a board of light sensors.
Most of the initial technology was repurposed from the military, developed to aid in navigation or bombing.
Over the years, dedicated devices have become smaller, more portable and somewhat cheaper, although they remain costly. Economically, the audience for such devices is limited, meaning a small consumer base must share the costs for research and development.
When Caden’s family began looking for a purpose-built device, cost was one of their main considerations. The other was portability — they wanted something he could carry easily.
Even today, specially designed devices can cost $2,000 to $10,000 and weigh upwards of 5 pounds. an iPad, by comparison, costs around $600 and weighs about a pound and a half. Caden’s communications software, Proloquo2Go, costs an additional $180.
The software consists of a square grid. each square has a different topic — “I need,” or “I want,” for example. Touching one of the squares brings up a submenu, that Jessica or a teacher can program.
For instance, if Caden is hungry for pizza, he first touches “I want” then “pizza” in the submenu. The program writes out the sentence and then, with another tap of the screen, verbalizes it.
“this is amazing,” Jessica said. “and you can do as much or as little with it as you want.”
At school, his aide uses the iPad to take photos of activities and Caden interacting with his classmates. When he comes home, he’s able to use the photos and his speech software to share his day with his parents — something most families take for granted.
“It’s helped so much, just with family,” Jessica said. “my husband and I are learning sign language, but no one else in the family knows it. and that’s intimidating.
“this makes it so much easier.”
At their house, Jessica watches as Caden sits on the couch, playing the video game “angry Birds.” he giggles with glee as he clears a level.
For most parents, their child playing a video game wouldn’t be noteworthy. but Jessica sees more than Caden enjoying himself.
She sees the way the game has helped him learn to use his fine motor skills to interact with the iPad, and the way he’s able to process spatial relationships within the game’s virtual environment.
When he first started using the tablet, he mashed the palm of his hand against the screen. now, when he paints in another application, he’s using his pointer finger to draw lines and circles.
A balancing act
The portability, accessibility and adaptability of tablet computers were not missed by the special-needs community, which very early grasped the possibilities they presented.
But technology alone is no panacea for the challenges of education, said Kirsten Yurich, chief clinical officer at the Vista School in Derry Twp. The Vista School is a private, nonprofit school for children on the autistic spectrum.
The school has been using tablet technology in a number of ways, including for communication with some of its students.
But the question always has to be, “does this piece of technology meet the child’s needs?” Yurich said.
There’s a fear that the ready availability of the technology might push it into the hands of children for whom a tablet computer wouldn’t actually address their individual issues.
In such a case, a computer could become more of a crutch or, worse yet, an impediment to real progress. instead of learning to speak, the child could learn to rely on the computer.
Another concern is socialization — the fear that a child could become lost in the immersive nature of the device and thus lose interest in interacting with the world around him.
At the same time, however, the Vista School has found that tablets can be excellent devices to facilitate or initiate contact between students and their teachers.
Walking that line is virgin territory for professionals who are learning the technology alongside their students.
In the end, it becomes a balancing act that hinges on each child’s needs.
“Flashy does not necessarily mean ‘good,’” Yocum said. “but these things have great advantages.”
Figuring out the devices
Part of the challenge of defining a tablet computer’s place in the classroom is the pace of technological change. The first tablet computers — a marriage of smartphones and laptops — only appeared in the mass-consumer market within the last three years.
There’s no book or manual for using them in the classroom. However, across the state, mainstream educators are slowly starting to write their own guidelines.
Outside of the special-needs community, in a few pilot programs organized by the state’s intermediate units — an arm of the state education department, which works with school districts — teachers are starting to figure the devices out and lay the groundwork for what could become a standard piece of classroom technology.
Regionally, five second-grade classrooms in five school districts are using tablet computers. The program is being run by the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, and among them are teachers in the Camp Hill and West Shore districts.
In Fishing Creek Elementary School’s Room 9, teacher Carrie Budman illustrates how to draw cursive letters on an interactive white board. her 20-some students watch, then break into small groups to practice.
Most grab traditional paper and pencils, but a few grab iPads off their desks.
Budman’s class is part of the regional pilot, and has six iPads — one for each group of four students. each day, a different student within each group is designated as the “iPad kiddo,” as Budman calls them, and is allowed to use the device when they break into individualized activities.
At one of the desks, second-grader Justin Cartwright is playing an addition game during a math activity period. When he answers correctly, he receives points that he can spend in the game for rewards. The game forms on a big, continuous feedback loop with goals, work and reward.
At first, he tries to fly though the problems, but only gets about 20 percent correct and doesn’t receive many points. on his own initiative, he slows down the second time through, and his correct percentage shoots up above 80 percent. he also receives more points and, once he’s reached a certain number, gets to watch a quick video.
Meanwhile, in the background, the program is tracking his progress and allows Budman to see how he, or any student using the software, is performing.
Budman’s students have been using one program called ‘Show Me’ to record themselves doing math problems. The second-graders are taught to process mathematics visually, a change from when most parents were in school.
Her students spend a few minutes recording themselves working through examples, then send the video to their teacher. Budman in turn posts the videos on her webpage so parents after school can review the math process to help their children with their homework.
Over this last year, her students have created history videos and, in one instance, used the technology to write storybooks with students in a second-grade class in a new York public school.
“We’re in the infant stages, but when you think about it, there’s so much [possible],” Budman said. “I came into this thinking, ‘you know, I don’t know if they’re going to be good enough,’ because the kids have been using [laptops] and there’s so much they can do. The more I get my feet wet into this and see everything you can do and how diversified it is … the more amazing it is.”
Budman said she is however, extremely careful about is using software that is more than just “edutainment.” she wants her students to measurably produce something, not just keep themselves busy playing video games.
“I think that’s the key,” said Karen Ditzler, a former elementary school teacher who coordinates the program on behalf of the intermediate unit. “Figuring out how to use them effectively and not as a, quote-unquote, ‘toy.’
“my thought is elementary schools — especially K to two — will move more toward this than, say, the laptops,” Ditzler said. “The things they’re creating on the iPads are just as good or better than what they did on laptops.”
‘A universal device’
Meanwhile, in the Derry Twp. schools, Caden is one of several special-needs students using the iPad.
About three years ago, the district’s special-needs instructors started looking at tablet technology for use in the classrooms.
Because they are not purpose-built medical devices, schools or families cannot use Medicaid dollars to buy tablet computers. instead, the Derry district used a state medical reimbursement program.
Some districts use the program to fund additional aides or transportation costs. Derry decided to pursue technology, and through the program has purchased a dozen iPads.
While several companies build tablet devices, the iPad was one of the first to gain broad market appeal.
Early interest in Apple’s mobile devices spilled over into the education field, where Apple traditionally has a strong business base. Until relatively recently, the education market was one of Apple’s core businesses, with Microsoft-based computers dominating business and home computing.
Partially because it was one of the first mobile operating systems to enter the market with the ability for users to create their own applications and partially because of its track record in education, instructional and special-education application developers quickly embraced Apple’s mobile operating system.
Many of the software programs used by special-needs students — including Caden’s speech software — were initially only available on Apple mobile products.
A year or two later, Apple’s application marketplace continues to be a leader in assistive technology programs, many of which are created by parents to meet their child’s needs.
Although the Hershey schools initially purchased the iPads for students with communication barriers, today the devices are being used by students on the autistic spectrum and students who have emotional support needs or are physically disabled.
“The really interesting thing is, it’s a universal device,” said Lynn Dell, the district’s director of special education.
She explained that one of the chief selling points for the district was that, unlike specialized equipment, tablet computers can be adapted for several uses.
Hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, pattern recognition, shapes, spatial relationships, socialization, letters, numbers, reading and writing have specialized software available, usually for a minimal cost, say, $4.
In Carlisle, the Central Pennsylvania down Syndrome Awareness Group took it upon itself to push the technology into the community.
Cori Guillaume is the group’s director and has a son diagnosed with down syndrome. she became aware of using tablets through one of her son’s teachers,
She was amazed by the technology and how it seemed to fit the needs of the special-needs community. Guillaume’s son also struggles with verbal communication and uses the same program as Caden to communicate.
“my son comes home [from school] and he can tell me what he did that day,” Guillaume said. “It’s really remarkable. It opens him up to take ownership of his day.”
Realizing the potential of the devices — and the reality of tight public school budgets — Guillaume said the nonprofit group decided to provide iPads to children and adults on its own. they organized fundraisers, which included a woman collecting monetary pledges as she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Last year, the group donated about 40 iPads to area families, including two devices that were sent to classrooms in big Spring and Mechanicsburg schools.
‘Other kids take an interest’
For children with down syndrome or who are on the autistic spectrum, technological assistance can be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, the devices provide the child with the ability to interact more effectively with the world around them. on the other, they often mark out a child as different.
In Caden’s case, before he could talk through the iPad, he was perceived by other children as the strange kid who talked with his hands. His mother feared that if he used a purpose-built speech device, he could be further alienated.
But a tablet computer is cool. It’s hip. It’s what every kid on the playground wants for Christmas.
“It doesn’t call out a student as different, because it’s something everyone sees every day,” Guillaume said. “Kids aren’t looked at funny because of it.”
Instead, they often find themselves the center of attention.
In Caden’s case, his love of “angry Birds” has almost become a status symbol. In school, his classmates make him paper birds in arts and crafts. In gym class, they created a playground activity around the game.
“now the other kids take an interest in him, where before he was the kid who can’t talk,” Jessica Capitani said. “He’s just another kid in the classroom now.”
In his family’s living room, Caden sits on the couch and fires up a counting game, one in which he must touch the numbers in sequence as a soft, friendly female voice calls them out.
Jessica watches from across the room.
She’s hoping the school district will allow the family to keep the iPad over the summer, when school is not in session. That means he can continue his education through the summer, when many children are busy forgetting what they spent all winter learning.
‘A social butterfly’
Outside of school, Caden uses the iPad to interact with adults, stay busy while traveling or break the ice with other children when his mother volunteers at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. When dealing with adults, he’s able to verbally pass along basic information — “I’m hungry” or “I need to go to the bathroom” — that he couldn’t before.
On trips, he especially loves maps, figuring out where he is and where he’s going. even shopping at the grocery store is a chance to learn, to engage other people.
As strange as it might seem for a child with down syndrome who has trouble communicating, shyness isn’t in his vocabulary.
He recently stood in front of the Derry Twp. School Board, an event that leaves most 6-year-olds nervous — and proudly used his iPad to tell them about himself.
Caden isn’t afraid to share what he’s up to with strangers. he boldly walks up to them and displays his accomplishments to the adults around him.
“People are amazed to see this 6-year-old little boy with down syndrome rocking his iPad,” Jessica said. “It’s kind of funny to watch people’s faces.
“Most people’s perceptions are a kid with down syndrome would be in the corner … but he’s a little social butterfly. He’s got the same likes and dislikes as any other little boy.”