November 29, 2011

Update: Lord Roberts gets $16,000 towards technology to help unlock learning in autistic kids

L-R. Karen Maher, a special needs resource teacher, watches as student Yassin Dahhou uses an iPad at Lord Roberts Elementary school, Vancouver November 28 2011. The interactive tool can replace pull out cards and picture books like those in the photo's foreground. (Gerry Kahrmann / PNG Staff Photo)

UPDATE: Since this story was published, Lord Roberts has been inundated with donations. We’re told 42 iPads have been purchased or donated, with 12 of those going to special needs classes. If you have plans to donate iPads or money, please consider other schools in need at

Lord Roberts was a British military commander of some fame whose picture outstares anyone passing along the hallway of the school bearing his name in Vancouver’s West End.

In his day, Roberts of Kandahar was the “very model of a modern major general” (or in his case field marshal) to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, but that was way back in the 19th century.

So there’s an unfortunate symmetry in the fact that the means used by teachers to reach inside the minds of the 47 children with autism and other profound learning disorders attending this school have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st.

Teacher Karen Maher’s workspace in her small office is filled with an assortment of cue cards, books that contain a multitude of stick-on symbols and boards with a lineup of cartoon faces ranging incrementally from all-smiles to downright angry.

“We call them social stories,” says Maher of the abundance of props.

“Children with autism and learning disorders suffer greatly from anxiety when things change and we use these as a means to attempt to reach them and so reduce that stress,” she says.

Here’s how it works.

Children are taught the meaning of a symbol – an apple and drink designating lunch, a bus stands in for a field trip – dozens of them signifying all sorts of events likely to occur in school.

To prepare the child for an event, all this paraphernalia are rolled out and after much pointing at symbols there will come a point when the student will pick up a card and place it under one of the cartoon faces designating happiness, contentment, indifference, concern, alarm, fear or anger.

As a way of sending and receiving messages it’s the technological equivalent of the semaphore Lord Roberts would have been familiar with during the Indian Mutiny.

However, flags and mechanical arms have long since been replaced by the cellphone.

And all the stuff in Maher’s office needs to be replaced by iPads – a device that has revolutionized the interaction between teachers and the learning disabled.

Vice-principal Andrea Zeitz remembers her own iPad eureka moment.

“One day I had a student with autism in my office. George is non-verbal and it’s difficult to connect with him,” she says.

Zeitz was never sure what was going on with George as communication with him was uncertain.

All the books and symbols and smiley-sad face cards flourished before him weren’t doing it.

“So I said ‘George, let’s use the iPad’.”

What happened next stunned her. “George has one at home. So he took the iPad, turned it on then went to the iMovie app. The camera’s at the back and he started to film his hand. Then he added sound to it that said ‘high five, high five’ and started to edit it and in the end he created a little film about his hand giving high fives.

“The ease at which he did this was remarkable. It made me realize the power of this tool and how it opened up a whole other world about this young man that I knew nothing of. He was finally communicating with me.”

This was the first time Zeitz felt she’d made a complete connection with George.

“He’s creating something I could understand. It was a case of ‘oh my goodness, what else is in there?’ “Psychologists have recently tested him and he’s coming out as average … He was locked in.

“It shows that with the right tools, George and the other kids won’t be held back,” she says.

Zeitz and Maher said the iPad’s versatility opens up a whole range of communication possibilities for the learning disabled, from allowing kids who can’t read to have text read to them and for children who can’t write to use voice recognition to compose stories.

Problem is, there’s no money to buy iPads, and that situation isn’t about to change anytime soon.

There are four iPads belonging to teachers that can be volunteered for use but that’s hit and miss and, anyway, too few to service the needs of 47 learning-disabled students.

Since this is an appeal for special needs students, it fits the criteria for The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund Save-a-School campaign, as iPads are capable of changing the lives of learning disabled children.

Ideally, the school would love to have 30 iPads and a special docking cart to charge them up overnight.

“But even 10 would make a huge difference,” says Zeitz.

UPDATE: Problem solved! A 92-year-old former alumnus of the school has come forth with a $16,000 donation that should fund the acquisition of the majority of the learning tablets needed by autistic and learning disabled children at Lord Roberts school. We’ve put them in touch with London Drugs to buy the tablets at a discount rate, so we’re adding this school to the MISSION COMPLETE list. Thanks, vancouver!

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Simon Graham
    Dec 4 2011

    As a parent with an Autistic son, I have found the Ipad natural and intrinsically simple to navigate and use.

    The special ed programs available to make his stressful day easier and increases his ability to communicate his needs to the world invaluable.

    If parents could they would gladly purchase these essential tools for their children. But with all the extra non funded special Ed classes we provide to our children to try and remain grade level or at least progressing, we say thank you to person who donated the money to help our autistic Children. As the BC judge in the Anton case said “lets help unlock these angels”, I believe.

    Thank you again.
    Dad to a Lord Roberts Autistic Boy.

  2. Mahal Langston
    Dec 7 2011

    iPads are great learning tools! People with Autism are visual learners and most of them have problems commmunicating on a daily basis (Even the ones that are Verbal). Not only does the iPad give people with Autism a voice, it promotes independanace.

    With the Voice memo, slide screen, reading, math, iBooks and social story apps, iPads are Autistic friendly learning tool.

    Lord Roberts Special Needs children are all patiently waiting for school to purchase the iPads. I look forward to the day when they receive them! Keep moe posted. I am also available to volunteer time when looking for some learning apps :-)

    Mother to another child with Autism at Lord Roberts

  3. Edel Walsh
    Dec 7 2011

    Thank you to the donor of the funds for our children with Autism and learning disabilities at Lord Roberts. As a parent of a child with Autism, I cannot stress enough the significance of finding ways to connect with our children, beyond the most obvious.

    It has long been a belief that children with Autism lack the motivation to connect with other children and adults; that they are somehow content to live in their own world, tuned out and disconnected. My experience is that this is absolutely not so.

    What was missing was a medium that would help those of us outside their world to find a gateway into their world and to meet them there; not to insist only that they live how we live in our world on our terms.

    Kids with Autism teach us that they have a lot to teach us. Let’s let them do that now with the tools that work for them; tools that prove and demonstrate they have gifts as yet untapped to offer – and change – the world!

    Thank you to the loving person who donated these funds and to the Vancouver Sun for setting it all in motion.

    Edel Walsh

  4. Denise Daley
    Dec 8 2011

    As a parent of a child with Autism I personal experience with power of the iPAD to facilitate learning to do math, reading, and writing. The iPAD motivates my son and makes learning fun! Thank you so much for this donation!


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