A Digital Age For a Special Needs Education

Jeffery MacCormack

It’s a new age for children with Autism. Everything is changing, for the better.

I want to talk about bronze alloy for a moment. It may seem off topic, but just stay with me and it will all come back around. About 5,500 years ago, prehistoric societies started developing an alloy from tin and copper. Usually a mix of 88 percent copper and 12 percent tin, the original bronze alloy may have happened by accident. After all, there are two rivers in Syria that contain both tin ore and copper ore. However it happened, the Stone Age was over and the Bronze Age had begun.

You might be asking: So what, Jeff? Why are you telling me this? I have Wikipedia on my computer too. I’ll get back to the Bronze Age in a moment. In the meantime, let me tell you about an equally momentous event. It happened in the office of my school in the spring of 2012.

Allen had never spoken a word. He had never told his mom he loves her. He had never said thank you for his favourite treat. His vocabulary had been limited to exchanging Picture Exchange Communication cards (PECs) for his preferred items. And then one day, when he entered the school office to drop off the class attendance, he noticed the head secretary. Rather than waving, or vocalizing an incoherent sound, he declared clearly, “You’re looking lovely today.” The office filled with laughter and cheers!

The fact that Allen had used his iPad didn’t take away from this moment. Moreover, when he noticed the vice-principal, he told her the same thing. Once again, the staff cheered. Allen smiled, satisfied with himself. He knew he was being funny. He may have even felt a little suave. Those sophisticated emotions could be read on his beaming face.

I wonder what you must being thinking. Perhaps this exchange was an isolated incident? I assure you: quite the contrary.

It was a revolution in Allen’s developmental life. He reached out and communicated in a way that was previously impossible. He “saw” us. We “saw” him.

Let me explain. I work in a classroom designed to support the unique needs of children with autism. Our mandate? Increase communication and decrease negative behaviour. A mighty task indeed. But the good news is that we have great support staff and many tools at our disposal. And this year, we were granted one of the most exciting tools of all: technology!

Through a pilot project at the Simcoe County District School Board, my classroom was supplied with six iPads. If you don’t already know, touch-screen technology is an immeasurable improvement over conventional computer setups for students with autism. For instance, let’s consider


Parents with child looking at the child's work

Joyce Public School is located in northwest Toronto, in an unprepossessing one-storey brick building.

young boy with computer headset smiling looking at camera

In the summer of 2006 Nathan Toft downloaded Apple’siTunes software, curious about the 99-cent songs hehad heard about. This move introduced him to the exciting world of podcasting. He quickly got Janehooked and the two teachers, who are both joggers,loaded up their iPods with a variety of shows theydownloaded from the Internet. This was the start oftheir pod-casting adventure.