Students find their voice using donated iPads

Rotary Club North of Tacoma purchases iPads for autism specialty classrooms

5/10/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

Swipe. Tap. Pop!

A preschooler’s  small hands reach for digitally animated bubbles floating across an iPad screen.

“Look, there’s a big one,” teacher Tara Glackin-Coley says as she guides Isaac Moore to the images.

She counts aloud—one, two, three, four, five—as each onscreen bubble dissolves with the tap of a tiny finger and a burst of laughter from the boy.

“Time to share,” Glackin-Coley says, as she helps the boy pass the tablet to another student.​ ​​​​

Students in this Franklin Elementary preschool learn basic counting and taking turns with the iPads—important lessons for children with autism and for their typically developing peers in the class, who serve as social and communication models.

Occupational therapist helps a boy wearing headphones use his iPad
Occupational therapist Patricia Turner helps J.J. Williams use his iPad
​ ​​​​Members of Rotary Club of Tacoma North recently donated the tablets to the preschoolers and to kids in two autism specialty classrooms at Franklin. They also delivered iPads to students in autism programs at Boze, Jefferson and Grant elementary schools.

This marks the fourth and final year for the Rotary donations, which previously brought iPads to kids with autism at Reed, Lyon and Jefferson elementary schools. Altogether, the Rotarians have purchased one iPad for every two students and one for each teacher in each of Tacoma’s 15 autism specialty classrooms.

Over the four years, they have raised an estimated $40,000 through member donations and grants. Rotary’s involvement began after one member heard from a Jefferson teacher about the challenges of teaching children with autism.

“I have such respect for what the teachers do every single day,” said Rotarian Vicky Tetzlaff, who helped spearhead the effort. “It’s really clear the iPads are making a difference.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a child perceives the world. It can affect how a person communicates and interacts with others; people with autism often have difficulty understanding language, gestures and social cues. 

The iPads can motivate kids to interact more, both with the devices and with their classmates, said Traci West, who trains Tacoma teachers in how to use the iPads effectively for students with autism.

Some autistic children don’t speak, and iPads give them a voice. Communication applications loaded onto the tablets allow students to tap on pictures that prompt the iPad to “speak” the words represented by the visual symbols. 

Teacher helps boy 'pop' iPad bubbles
Teacher Tara Glackin-Coley helps Isaac Moore 'pop' and count iPad bubbles
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Melissa Gleason, who teaches a Franklin class for kindergarteners through second graders affected by autism, said the iPads will help her students participate in classroom activities.

“We’re super excited to have a new piece of technology brought into our classroom,” she said. “For our nonverbal kiddos, it’s really going to help them with getting their words out, making sentences and being able to make more choices.”

Gleason said her students respond enthusiastically to the iPad’s interactive features.

“It’s really going to help reinforce the skills we’re teaching,” she said. “It is going to help the kids have more practice with them.”

While some critics say the use of electronic devices can contribute to autism, more research points to beneficial uses.

West said some people may hold misconceptions about why teachers use the iPads in autism specialty classrooms.

“People might think we are just using them as a reward,” she said.

But Tacoma teachers receive training on how to effectively use the devices as powerful teaching tools. 

In addition to applications designed to help students communicate, others teach counting or literacy skills using game-based learning.

Teachers can also employ iPads in other ways. For example, groups of students can read an e-book on the tablet, while a teacher works one-on-one with other students.

West said teachers use iPads to engage students, enhance lessons and extend those lessons into the world students encounter outside the classroom.

Tetzlaff said Rotary members are glad to be part of the effort.

“Teachers have told us the impacts the iPads have,” she said. “They tell us what we are doing is helping. That’s who we are, and what we want to be doing.”