Communication technology helps disabled students

Classroom Progress Report

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — So many of us take our ability to express ourselves for granted. This can be incredibly challenging for those with certain special needs, but there are great strides being made to help them communicate.

At Wildwood School in Schenectady, a new technology that helps to bridge the communication gap is becoming more accessible. “For our students who—their greatest struggle is communication—there is a way to help them all day, every day,” says Katelyn Farrell, the lead speech and language therapist.

The students are taking advantage of AAC, or augmentative and alternative communication, a system that encompasses all types of communication aides to meet each student at their level.

One student benefitting greatly is a 9-year-old with Down syndrome. NEWS10’s Christina Arangio did a story with Oscar six years ago. He was abandoned at birth in China and was eventually adopted by a loving, local family at age 3. Now, Oscar and his friends might be able to find their voices.

Kids with autism make up the majority of the student body at Wildwood. Given their developmental disability, with many unable to verbalize, they need extra support to communicate. From picture books to communication boards, a “go talk,” switches, and IPads—they’re all used.

Oscar’s parents—the Stallmers, who also have a biological son with Down syndrome—came to learn that Oscar is also autistic. From birth to age 3, he did not have the benefit of early intervention therapies. The language barrier and other physical challenges left the Stallmers struggling to communicate—but with technological assistance, that’s changing.

“He’s come really far with his communication,” said Joelle Bertoli, Oscar’s speech therapist.

Therapist Kelsey Govel recalls another student’s turnaround. “He’s able to say, ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘I need a break.’ He’s now able to regulate himself a lot more and communicate, and it’s resulting in a lot less behaviors, which is really wonderful to see,” she said.

“Previously, where speech-generating systems were only available on Medicaid devices, now they look very familiar to apps we use for our own play and our own personal use,” Farrell said. And during quarantine, more parents learned to use them. “Parents got to participate in their therapies and got to become more comfortable using the systems at home”

Focusing on a few core vocabulary words for all the students each week has helped add to Wildwood’s success in recent years. “Using that across settings, Bertoli said. “They can use it in gym class and art class, communicate with all different people then throughout their day.”

Those communication tools open up the world for Oscar and his peers. They promote both inclusion and independence because the students are able to express themselves and be a part of their communities.

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