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Northeast Arc bridges communication gap with iPads and app

Because children with autism or other developmental delays who are nonverbal have a difficult time learning and can get easily frustrated at their inability to communicate, it is important to provide them with ways to express themselves in order to reach their potential at school, home and in the community. With that in mind, Northeast Arc is helping to bridge that communication gap.

Using funding from donors, Northeast Arc is again providing augmentative and alternate communication (AAC) by giving free iPads and the TouchChat application to students in Lynn and other communities. The agency, founded in 1954 by parents of children with developmental disabilities who wanted to raise them to be full members of the community, also provides training for parents and school speech therapists who will assist the children in using the iPad and the app.

“The kids really take to the technology,” said Gloria Ricardi Castillo, director of the Northeast Arc Touch to Talk program, which is run under the auspices of the Autism Support Center. “We identify kids who are already using PECS (picture exchange communication system). Using the app is so much easier.”

Northeast Arc is again implementing the Touch to Talk program this school year, with more than two dozen children age 4-9 receiving the technology, valued at approximately $800. On Thursday at the Shoemaker Elementary School in Lynn, at least one parent of each of the nine students receiving the iPads underwent a training conducted by Northeast Arc and a representative of Saltillo, the company that developed TouchChat. Shoemaker speech therapists and Lynn Public Schools special education program specialist Miki DiVirgilio also participated. A similar training was held at Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem earlier in the week, and in Lawrence in September.

“It’s a collaboration with the school,” Castillo said. “We train the speech and language therapists who then present the information to parents.”

The benefits of AAC and other assistive technologies for nonverbal children cannot be overstated.

“It makes them feel like they have a voice,” Castillo said.

Lynn Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Tutwiler agreed.

“Core to the mission of the Northeast Arc is partnering with individuals with disabilities in an effort to facilitate full and meaningful participation in school, the workplace and the community as a whole,” Tutwiler said. “The generous donation of the iPads and the TouchChat application will help these students communicate with a greater degree of ease. As I see it, this is yet another wonderful display of Northeast Arc’s mission brought to life as well as a powerful partnership with the Lynn Public Schools to benefit students.”

This is the sixth year that Northeast Arc, which serves almost 10,000 people in almost 200 communities North of Boston, has offered the Touch to Talk program to local school districts. According to Castillo, research indicates that using AAC does not inhibit speech production; in fact, many studies have shown AAC promotes speech attempts and can be useful for clarification, she said.

AAC improves functional communication, language development, independence, social interaction, and comprehension, while decreasing confusion, frustration, maladaptive behavior and loneliness, according to Castillo. “It’s not a magic fix, but it does have great benefits,” Castillo said.

DiVirgilio said at least two dozen Lynn students have received iPads and TouchChat from Northeast Arc in the last three years, and teachers have seen the impact.

“Our speech therapists are beyond excited about this opportunity,” she said. “We are seeing great success at school and families are seeing it at home. That’s the main thing families want — to communicate with their child.”

That can be a monumental challenge for some, but Northeast Arc is doing its part to lessen that burden.

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