iPad Affordances for Teaching Children with Developmental Disabilities

by Sarah Vaala
April 2, 2012

This is the first of three posts by Sarah Vaala, the 2011-2012 Cooney Center Fellow, reflecting on a recent visit to the Mary Cariola Children Center to learn how iPads are being used by children with developmental disabilities. Part Two focuses on specific skills that are fostered through using an iPad. Part Three addresses the limitations.

Joan and her student Gracie at the Mary Cariola Children's Center

Joan and her student Gracie at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center

“What would you like to do today?” asks preschool teacher Dana Bennett as she hands an iPad to 4-year-old Sean. Sean’s eyes light up, he scans the screen, and his finger quickly taps on The Monster at the End of This Book app. Once in the book, he goes directly to the third page. Sean looks intently at the vibrant text on the page, ignoring Grover’s image completely, as the words are read aloud. Then he expertly swipes the screen and turns the page.

This scene resembles countless others occurring in schools across the country, where iPads are being introduced and incorporated into lesson plans. However, this particular scene took place at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center, a school in Rochester, New York that serves children with complex developmental delays. Children across Western New York are referred to Mary Cariola by their home school districts when no local program can meet their complex needs. The school has programs for children from 3 to 21 years of age who have a wide variety of special needs—cognitive, physical, and behavioral. The preschool program, which serves 80 3- to 5- year old students who have complex motor, communication, and learning needs, is taught and supported by masters-level teachers and clinicians. The students include children with chromosomal disorders, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, seizure disorders, visual impairments, pervasive developmental delays, autism, global delays in all areas, and other health impairments including brain and heart malformations and leukemia.

After hearing about their use of iPads in the classroom, I recently spent a day visiting the staff and students of the Mary Cariola Preschool Program. Sean, the young boy engrossed in the Sesame book, is non-verbal and has autism. His family is learning English as a second language. When he started at Mary Cariola, it was difficult for Dana and his other teachers to gauge his abilities and build an appropriate education plan for him. Sean did not understand what they said to him, he often threw the objects they gave him out of frustration, and his parents had difficulty communicating with his teachers about his abilities.

A major breakthrough came when Dana sat Sean in front of a computer with a touch screen interface. He was instantly engaged with the computer and immediately began touching the matching items he saw onscreen. Because they had not been able to prompt him to demonstrate this matching ability with physical toys or pictures, his teachers had concluded that he was not yet able to do it. Since then, his teachers have learned, largely through the help of touch screen and iPad technologies, that he has a keen interest in text and the sounds made by the letters he sees. While Sean may never be able to speak, Dana is working with Sean to build phonetic awareness, with the confidence that he will one day be able to read.

The day I spent at the Preschool showed that the affordances of the iPad fit the needs of children with diverse developmental disabilities in a variety of ways and contexts:

The iPad’s size, shape and portability translate into maximum versatility. Teachers here lauded the convenient size and shape of the iPad, as it can be used anywhere at any time and in combination with other therapeutic equipment. In the Preschool, some classrooms contain sturdy wooden easels set on small tables where iPads can be strapped down and displayed at just the right height and angle for those eager to interact with them. In fact, the teachers particularly like these tabletop easels because they allow students to sit with their feet on the ground while they use the iPads – a position they consistently encourage across many learning activities. Furthermore, the protective casing available for iPads helps ensure that they won’t be damaged even when they are not strapped down. Wheelchair mounts are also available for iPads so that the devices can be easily utilized by students with physical disabilities as well. The fact that the device takes up such little space also means that toys and other props can be used right alongside the iPad; holding a toy that looks just like the picture on the screen can help a student grasp symbolic representation concepts. In short, its very design enables the iPad to “level the playing field” by making digital technology more accessible to students with a variety of special needs for whom it has not been available in the past.


Brooklyn, with her teacher Colleen, uses props to demonstrate concepts she sees on the iPad.

iPad’s apps and features make it accessible to those with visual impairments. Joan Smith, Mary Cariola’s Teacher of the Visually Impaired, explained that many children at the school have a condition called cortical visual impairment, where damage to the brain or an area of the central nervous system causes their vision difficulties. For these students, though they are technically able to see, processing discrete visual information within a “complex array” of colors or patterns is particularly difficult. For Joan the iPad has become a very useful tool for helping students with cortical visual impairment “build visual behaviors.” With apps that display simple monochromatic objects – on a black background to reduce glare, and with movement to attract attention – she can watch a child’s gaze for indications that he is aware of the object onscreen. After children master that awareness, Joan works with them until they can track the object as it moves and then they reach intentionally towards the object. With these abilities under their belts, children can then start to identify the objects they see and learn about symbolic representation – that the pictures they are seeing represent tangible objects in the real world. Explains Joan, “We have kids who don’t have speech and probably never will have speech, so the number one thing we work on with some kids is using the eyes to communicate. We can really open the world if we can expand that to two dimensions because that offers them so many more options.”


Gracie with the help of her teacher Joan and an iPad learns her abcs

iPads benefits go way beyond direct learning at Mary Cariola. As the story about Sean illustrates, iPads can help teachers and clinicians determine a student’s existing range of skills and abilities, particularly when behavioral issues are masking what that child knows and can do. Furthermore, children’s exploratory behavior on the iPad, coupled with their reactions to what they see or hear, can give teachers some clues about their particular interests. This in turn can point to what a specific child is ready to learn next, and help plot the best course for his or her education goals and milestones. During Sean’s early explorations of the touch screen computer and iPad, Dana observed his apparent interest in text and the sounds associated with text. She has determined that his learning activities, with and without the iPad, should focus on his letter identification and phonetic awareness skills. The apps he chooses, icons he clicks on, and even his gaze on the screen continue to inform Dana of Sean’s progress and interests.

iPads give students the sense of pride and belonging with their typically developing peer group . Who doesn’t want to feel like they are the ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ kids. Some children with autism are even using iPads as a communication device, which can make them feel more like their peers than when they use more distinctive and sophisticated technologies for the same purpose. In addition, the progress that students with cognitive delays demonstrate through use of the iPad can be very rewarding for parents as well. Many parents are still coming to terms with their children’s special needs during the preschool years, a time when many see the gap widening substantially between their children’s progress and that of their peers. But, as Dana puts it, “technology is a great equalizer,” as children with diverse disabilities can also show off their success when they use the iPad. In Dana’s experience, fathers in particular experience a lot of joy from watching their children’s success using the device. This pride in a child’s accomplishments often prompts a parent to get involved in the child’s iPad use, beginning a productive cycle of pride and direct parental engagement in children’s learning.

I came away from Mary Cariola convinced of the amazing potential of the iPad and other tablets like it for children with disabilities – a game changer for children, and every teacher’s dream for reaching kids when nothing else has worked. Their myriad unique affordances allow iPads to be used in a meaningful way with students who have complex cognitive, behavioral, and physical disabilities; that use then manifests itself in the advancement of a variety of skills targeted in students’ education plans. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post to learn about how iPads are used at Mary Cariola to teach some of those specific skills!