Assistive technology for special needs students

Magnus Health
Blog, Student Health
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Assistive technology for special needs students

I’ve been a School Nurse for 18 years. Before that, a teacher of Autistic Students for eight years. Believe me, I know the challenges for students with any kind of special need, both in a classroom as well as the school nurse’s office.  

child_health_handicapped_in_wheelchair_smallerCommunication challenges for this population encompass a wide range, from a student who can be quite eloquent, to the student with absolutely no language.  From having problems with motor problems, like apraxia, to the inability to process any or little spoken or written language, these students can be a challenge in diagnosing any kind of medical or emotional problem. These students tend to be concrete thinkers, have attention deficits, and have problems with social skills. As a school nurse in a private school for students with special needs, the potential for timely and suitable care is now GREATLY IMPROVING!

Fifteen years ago I used a ‘medical’ word chart and adapted it to simple body parts, verbs such as ‘hurt’, and maladies such as headache and tummy ache. Pain scales were too abstract and any “wh” word was too difficult to process. Ice packs, lying down on the cot, and drinking some water were considered the bulk of my nursing interventions. Unless a student had a fever or obvious digestive distress, my guesses of their afflictions were often wrong. Their frustrations and increased stress levels only exacerbated their physical condition! Students would frequently either be sent home to the parent (who was most likely equally frustrated) or sent back to class, just to re-appear crying in my doorway!

Over the years, Social Stories were developed for the students, PECS (picture exchange communication) systems were becoming available, and more and more assistive devices and websites devoted to this problem became readily available for the educational environment. Thanks to organizations like Autism Alliance and Autism Speaks, many tool kits have been made available to understand and support students with autism in the health office.

At The Children’s Institute, where I have worked for the past 15 years, teachers, therapists, and staff have been using and reviewing many kinds of assistive technology and applications  for the iPod, iPad and iPhone to help support our population. Among them:

  • Language Builder and SymbolSupport: Both receive rave reviews for visual learners and were designed specifically to help students increase their expressive language skills. 
  • The Social Express: A super educational tool for the middle school student, and quite user-friendly.
  • Autism Xpress: Encourages students with autism to recognize and express emotions and feelings. 
  • I Converse and Living Safely: Both provide multimodal instruction designed for students on the Autistic Spectrum.

These are some of our favorites, but many, many other GREAT Autism Apps are also available.

I hope that this information can help anyone, like myself, who needs to support our students in The Health Office, when they cannot necessarily speak for themselves.

About the author

Pam BarnesPamela Barnes, RN, CSN-NJ, M.Ed is the School Nurse and Health Educator at The Children’s Institute in Verona, NJ, and has over 18 years of school nursing experience. 



For information on best practices to communicate student needs with the whole school, view our complimentary research paper on the topic.