Technology Lab aids special needs learners
An innovative Technology Learning Lab that recently opened in Hatboro is giving students with autism and other learning disorders, along with their parents and caregivers, an opportunity to communicate and socialize in ways they never thought possible.
For Karen Velocci, president of SI Services and technology director of the Autism Cares Foundation, which co-founded the lab, it has been a labor of love. When her son, Stefan, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, she set out to do everything in her power to give him a voice. Now age 16, Stefan uses a myriad of applications on his iPad to communicate.
“Technology has changed my son’s life,” says Velocci. “The iPad has given him a voice, opened up the lines of communication and provided him with more opportunities in life. Stefan is now more social than he ever was and has more self-confidence in his daily life.”
Velocci, who has a background in technology, as well as an early childhood education degree, started SI Services three years ago with her husband, in partnership with the Autism Cares Foundation, to provide other parents and professionals with the education they need to utilize technology to enhance learning and help people with challenges reach their potential. SI Services developed a series of workshops, seminars, individualized sessions, staff training and family classes to empower parents, caregivers, teachers, therapists and others working with the special needs population to make a difference in the lives of their children and students.
“We initially started out with a computer learning lab in 2009 to teach computer skills to kids with special needs,” says Linda Kuepper, co-founder and CEO of the Autism Cares Foundation, based in Richboro.
“When the iPad came out in 2010, we realized the untapped potential it offered and turned our focus to teaching families how to used the iPad appropriately to enhance learning and communication skills with their children.”
The foundation developed a pilot program offered at Newtown Middle School in Bucks County to address use of the iPad for communication, skill development, social interaction, motivation and inclusion in classroom activities. Within three years, the demand for the program grew exponentially, and the Technology Learning Lab was born.
“The lab is one of the most untapped gems around for parents of children with autism,” says Eric Hobson,of Landsale, whose 14-year-old son, Max, participated in some of the initial programs offered by the Foundation. “The programs enabled me to interact with Max in a fun and meaningful way, and provided an activity we could do together, while engaging him in an enjoyable way. These programs really open parents’ eyes to what’s out there. There are so many different apps for multiple types of kids who struggle to communicate and learn. The foundation and SI Technologies, through Karen’s energetic, dedicated efforts, are on the cutting edge of using this technology to help children and other individuals with communication deficits to forge new pathways.”
Kuepper, who met and befriended Velocci when their autistic sons were in middle school, says the use of interactive technology has helped her 14-year-old non-verbal son, Michael, to communicate better and learn more than she ever thought possible.
“These programs give kids a voice and help parents communicate with their kids,” says Kuepper. “In addition, the technology improves kids’ self-confidence and provides them with an opportunity to communicate their needs. For children who are non-verbal, the lack of communication can be very frustrating, for the kids and their parents, teachers and caregivers. Using the iPad, they can now tell others how they feel, what they need and interact in a social way. In addition to bridging the communication gap, the iPad makes learning fun and engages kids in a positive way.”
One of the main programs the Technology Learning Lab teaches parents and teachers to utilize is Proloquo2Go, a text-to-speech application that allows individuals who can’t speak to voice their needs and wants by choosing simple options like, “I want” or “I need,” and offering a variety of descriptive choices, in addition to a keyboard that can be used to spell out words and “speak” their needs to others. While Proloquo2Go was not originally developed for the autism community, it has quickly grown in popularity for its relatively low cost, ease of use and portability.
“My son used to carry around a large piece of equipment in order to communicate, due to his speech impediment,” says Velocci. “He often felt subconscious around his peers, which made him uncomfortable in social situations. Now, with the iPad, he can easily carry it around at school and other kids don’t give it a second thought. It has become an amazing, supportive resource that helps him communicate and motivates him to learn.”
Through her workshops, Velocci aims to empower parents, teachers, therapists and others to understand how to program and use the iPad as a learning device, as well as to facilitate communication and empower their child or student to become motivated, lifelong learners.
The 90-minute workshops focus on iPad basics, identifying apps to facilitate educational and productivity needs, integrating the iPad in education, communication apps, such as Proloquo2Go, and other topics designed to help make kids with special needs more independent and present content in an engaging and innovative way. Sessions typically cost $25 per workshop and are held after school and in the evenings. Personal consultations and private lessons are also available.
For more information on the Technology Learning Lab or to register for a session, visit www.si-services.com or www.autismcaresfoundation.org, or contact Velocci at 215-313-5989.
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