The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘autistic students

iLove the iPad (and always will)

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Courtesy Tim McCarthy, Asbury Park Press

Alesha Williams Boyd of the Asbury Park Press¬†is the latest reporter to uncover the autism community’s love affair with Apple’s iPad computers. Several New Jersey school districts are purchasing iPads for special needs students for the upcoming 2011-12 school year, with a private school requiring families of students to purchase the mobile computers.

The mobility, aesthetics and the ability to install apps to personalize each system are a few reasons why iPads are such a hit for the mentally disabled community. The director of special services at New Jersey’s Marlboro Public School district credits Apple’s product for drawing autistic kids out from themselves. The iPad’s ability to provide a means of communication via screen images for autistic children is well-documented, but thanks to the app market, school districts are also using iPads to encourage autistic people to make eye contact. Even if such applications have a price tag (according to the article, some cost as much as $200), many still consider the iPad a marvel with its $500 list price compared to bulkier, bigger, more complicated devices that can reach four figures.

What about students with other disabilities? Boyd covers that segment in the first few paragraphs, reporting applications allowing students to organize their activities, thoughts and assignments (a boon for autistic children who adhere to routine), and apps that can vocalize text or translate the spoken word into text. Not enough? Settings on some apps can be adjusted to the type of touch students produce, and can also be rigged to challenge students to exercise their motor skills with different forms of touch.

I doubt this will be the last time iPad and autism blend in the same article, but future media coverage could become stagnant if future versions of the iPad aren’t considered revolutionary for the disabled population. Coupled with similar abilities from the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple’s sister products, stories on the benefits of these devices will find difficulty creating new flavors for an audience that follows autism news via the Internet, where geographical boundaries are neutralized. However, the primary reason for future media coverage that could repeat itself is all about the audience.¬†Similar stories to find a place on this blog originated from Houston and the Twin Cities area, so to assume New Jersey residents would know of those stories would be unwise. While this means using a search engine for stories on autism may produce carbon-copies published in different outlets, local organizations aren’t worried about similar coverage outside their market.

However, Boyd does show her readers the iPad’s potential outside of the autism community, where most media coverage in this topic is focused. Truthfully, the advantages of the iPad aren’t any major revelation these days, but Boyd does answer the call for communities who may feel overshadowed by autism coverage. Examining the benefits is useful beyond informing the audience for Apple’s sake. Since Apple releases new editions of their products on an annual basis, viewing its impact across multiple facets may assist them with improvements for future editions through app technology or hardware components.

I had to learn to communicate through more traditional computers since touch-based technology was far from wide use growing up. I can’t say I’m more or less fluent with computers than autistic kids who use iPads are, but I can predict school districts will eventually saturate their special-needs students with iPads when budgets and resources allow for the opportunity, and you can bet I’ll follow the news coverage generated from the implementation.

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Written by TheSportsBrain

August 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Autistic students become “teachers”

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Justin Evans, with assistance from an autism aide at Colfax Elementary School, highlights his shared interests with non-autistic classmates during a presentation. Photo by Jason Bridge.

OK, so adults still teach full-time, but Michael Aubele of Valley News Dispatch found three autistic students at Colfax Upper Elementary School who shared their autism spectrum disorder with their classmates. The school, along with other school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley in Pennsylvania, are involved in sponsoring events for Autism Awareness Month, which wraps up this Saturday.

The three autistic Colfax classmates, just like almost every other student, were nervous about their presentations because their lectures broke traditional routines (autistics are very routine-oriented). One student used an iPad to showcase his interest in Dr. Seuss, and his autism support teachers regularly use the iPad to communicate with him. Their fellow classmates embraced the learning lessons because they increased their overall understanding of autism spectrum disorder. One student interviewed by Aubele said she wasn’t aware of autism’s range of severity prior to the presentations.

Aubele’s story is short and doesn’t quote any sentences when he refers to his interviews, but give him credit for finding a pair of fellow students to gauge reaction to the information shared by their autistic classmates. Interviewing children is tougher than adults and even teens who are subjects of many other autism stories, so not seeing many quotes from them isn’t a surprise, no matter what restrictions were placed on story length. Complicating such an interview is the story’s subject; adults have spent hours upon hours and are still dumbfounded on many facets of autism. Now throw in a much younger face with much growing to do. Fortunately, as Aubele shows, no hairs need pulling when approaching kids for interviews. Stick to the simple questions, such as what they knew before and after a presentation and what they thought about it.

Although surmising a deadline for this story isn’t achievable, Aubele could have played up his third-person narrative with the autistic students and their classmates to a greater extent. How much did the autistic classmates believe their peers understood their disability? What goals did they have for the presentations? How well did they get along with classmates before they opened themselves up in this fashion? The story’s short length doesn’t allow much development for such ideas. However, Aubele’s story illustrates the reduced fear of sharing sensitive material about students that can increase their vulnerability. The mentality when I attended elementary school was silence in hopes that no one would think the disability exists. Unfortunately, autism and other disabilities don’t work that way. Gauging what would be different had I attended in this social environment is impossible due to too many changing variables, but Aubele’s piece could ease worries other parents or teachers may still have about revealing differences.

Autism needs growing faster than available resources

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A kindergartner turns away during a read along in class. Photo by Diandra Jay

News about cash-strapped school districts has landed on television and newspapers for the last few years following The Great Recession, exacerbating issues the districts are facing within their student bodies. They have no immunity against autism, and as Kelly Puente of the Press-Telegram highlights, the state of California is implementing what they can with limited resources as more autistic students enroll in their schools. California’s Department of Education estimates 60,000 children in their schools are autistic, with over 1,000 serving in the Long Beach Unified School District, the primary coverage area for the Press-Telegram.

While limited funding increases the difficulty of adapting to rising autistic students, districts like the LBUSD are far from helpless. Previously relying on outside agencies to provide services for autistic children, the district now offers resources that include the Long Beach Early Autism Program which begins before a child turns 3. The program helps parents and the district construct and Individualized Education Program (IEP) while the child enrolls in preschool and special day classes. While such amenities cost the LBUSD $91 million, nearly 20 percent of their overall budget, they say doing so saves money long-term by going in-house versus using outside agencies (my post on Ken Salazar’s granddaughter highlighted some reasons for the high cost of autism services).

The state of California formed an Autism Advisory Committee in 2007 as a call to action to meet the challenge of educating autistic children. A teaching authorization for autistic students was added to special-education teachers, and the LBUSD now requires an authorization to teach autistic students for all special education teachers working with children who have mild to moderate disabilities.

Although Puente’s main plot is the course of action pursued by the local district her paper serves, she makes the story easier to relate by including an insight from an autistic student inside the Long Beach district who is prone to mental breakdowns but excels in his middle school classes. Blake Wesselman serves as the springboard for the story’s focus, representing one face of the 60,000 inside the country’s most populous state. While Wesselman’s mother holds hope that her son can lead a normal life, Puente bookends the story emphasizing such “normal” things, including his proficiency in math, his passion for sports, heavy metal and Guitar hero, even mentioning Blake’s girlfriend in the story. I doubt Puentes and Temple Grandin have met face-to-face, but Puente has taken Grandin’s advice about promoting the strengths of autistic people, as such strengths aren’t exclusive to them or non-autistic people.

Using Blake’s profile as a bookend benefits the story beyond illuminating a success figure in the schools, his story reinforces the effectiveness of the LBUSD’s autism programs. While no doubt was cast in the story on the school district’s programs, using a student who was more severely impaired or just started receiving attention in one of their programs could unintentionally communicate an ulterior message in Puente’s story. Factoids about autism awareness month and the disability itself are included to clue in readers who may not be aware of either element.

Puente’s reporting balances the increase in support for autistic students in California schools with ongoing obstacles, allowing her sources to promote why autism services require continuous support. A follow-up certainly isn’t out of the question with the always-changing nature of education. Whether that’s through more success stories like Blake’s, new programs offered by school districts, or the impact current programs have on students is unknown, but the story’s positive nature will at least offer a nice reprieve for readers growing weary of stories warning of a metaphorical apocalypse.