CARMICHAELS – Special needs instructors in the Carmichaels Area, Jefferson-Morgan and Southeastern Greene school districts were given six reasons to smile this week. Each district was given six iPad minis to help autistic students.
The devices were purchased through a joint fundraising effort between RiSZing Star Productions of Carmichaels and the Carmichaels Senior Activity Center. Susan Zalar and Frank Ricco, co-directors of RiSZing Star, were planning a holiday show when the idea was presented to them.
Zalar mentioned the idea of doing the show as a fundraiser for a local charitable organization to someone who happened to be a learning support teacher in the Carmichaels Area School District.
“Melissa (Christopher) and I were talking about it when we were planning the Christmas show this year. She mentioned how iPad minis would really help in the autistic classrooms at the school,” Zalar said. “It sounded like a great idea and Frank and I said, ‘Let’s make a goal to do it for these three districts.’”
Christopher explained how the devices can be tailored to fit the individual student’s needs.
“A lot of students with autism perceive and interpret their surroundings very literally. They don’t understand social cues. This is a more interactive way to teach them,” Christopher said. “There are programs on the iPad that give examples of a lot of those social cues so they get a visualization of exactly what certain things mean and how to respond appropriately.”
Christopher said the iPad minis will reinforce what is taught in the classroom on a more individualized basis, giving the student immediate feedback if their response is wrong and showing them the correct one.
“Our students are going to benefit greatly from it. With the budget cuts in state funding this is something we might not have been able to obtain,” she said. “For non-verbal students with autism they can’t tell you what they want or need. With this they can hit a button and it almost speaks for them.”
Christopher said it will take much of the frustration out of the situation for these kids.
“What does happy look like, what does mad look like, those are things that they will be able to express with the iPad minis,” she added.
Ellen Dale Guesman Boudreau of Rices Landing knows very well the benefit of these devices for children on the Autistic spectrum. Her sons, Jacque, 12, and Petie, 13, were diagnosed with the disorder before the age of 2. Both boys fall more to the non-verbal side. Boudreau said an iPad, recently given to the boys by their grandfather, has already proved very helpful.
“There are so many different apps they can use with it. It is not just for communication. It pretty much covers everything,” Boudreau said. “In the past, Petie used a Dynavox device to express himself,” she said, but found it to be helpful but bulky, heavy and difficult for him to carry. The Dynavox was also very expensive compared to the iPad or iPad minis, she said.
Boudreau gave examples of how communicating with the device has worked for her older son. For quite some time he kept requesting something that sounded like “Go-shee-by,” Boudreau said. He would get frustrated after a while and let it go. One day, Boudreau suggested he type what he wanted. “He typed Toshiba. He wanted my laptop. I was pretty amazed. When you go to the doctors they can’t respond to, ‘Does your ears hurt or your belly hurt,’” she said. “On here there are faces for happy, sad and angry. I wish they had this a long time ago when they started school.”
She said it is great that people got together to provide the iPad minis for the three county schools. “When you have seven kids in a classroom and only one iPad it makes it hard,” she said. “The possibilities with it are endless. I am just waiting to see where it takes us.”
Gabrielle Gruber, autistic/special needs instructor for Southeastern Greene School District, said she was thrilled when she learned her district would receive them. She said she sees it as a way of not only promoting the learning of academics but social, life and anger management skills.
“The implementation of iPads into my autistic support classroom will provide students the opportunity to learn in alternative ways. Because of the flexibility and portability of the iPad, my students will have a sense of independence and control versus that of a laptop or desktop computer,” Gruder said. “The touch screen is more accessible for my students because of coordination skills. By simply sliding and tapping the screen, the student can complete tasks and activities rather than typing or writing their work.”
Zalar said the idea of getting behind a local effort such as this was so well received that she, Ricco and the activities center board have already decided to do a similar local project annually.
“It was because of the very committed and charitable individuals donating their time and talent away from their own families during the holidays that we were able to make our goal happen,” Zalar said. Rehearsals were held for five weeks at the Carmichaels Center for Performing Arts, owned by Zalar.
The cast grew until more than a dozen performers took the stage in December. Box office receipts totaled close to $2,000, not quite enough to reach the goal of six mini iPads per district but the fundraising didn’t stop there.
“People really got behind this and it was and honor and a privilege for me to be the master of ceremonies for this great, charitable event,” said District Magistrate Lee Watson. “We really appreciate all of the people who attended and anyone who donated. Thank you.”
It was the donations that pushed the amount raised to over $6,500, more than enough to purchase the iPad minis. The remainder will be given to the activities center board to purchase gas cards for volunteer drivers of the Meals on Wheels program.