On one recent day at PS 177 in Queens, NY, a scene that’s typical this time of year unfolds: the school band plays some holiday tunes in the hallway. But there’s something different about this band: all six students have severe learning disabilities—most are autistic to some degree—and their instrument of choice isn’t a horn or woodwind, but a tablet computer.
Their teacher, Adam Goldberg, has mounted eight iPads on stands and arranged them in a horseshoe pattern. Members of the PS 177 Technology Band, as they’ve dubbed themselves, assume their places and play an elegant, faithful rendering of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," from "The Nutcracker." "Carol of the Bells" and an original tune, "4-2-4 Jam," soon follow. Festively garbed teachers and students pass and applaud between numbers.
"We perform, they love it, they clap. It’s my favorite thing to do," one of the band members, Jaquan Bostick, 16, tells me later.
To hear Goldberg and the New York Department of Education’s Leslie Schecht tell it, the iPad orchestra before me is a symbol of the transformative power of Apple devices in special education. "In some cases, these are kids that were nonverbal," says Schecht. "They really adapted and changed tremendously."
Neither Schecht nor Goldberg have any financial relationship with Apple ("I wish," says Schecht, when I ask if the DOE gets any iPad handouts), but they’ve invited me to PS 177 solely to spread the gospel about what they think could be a transformative technology for students with autism or other learning disabilities.
Goldberg tells the story of one student, James, who would only repeat the word "batwooie"—bathroom—on loop, largely to escape social situations. Over time, Goldberg got James to try music applications on the iPad. One day in class, Goldberg saw that James appeared in a more outgoing mood. Goldberg invited James to the front of the class to sing Bob Marley’s "One Love," which the other students had been singing—and he "sang every word," recalls Goldberg. Then James turned to his teacher and said, "iPad please."
Another student, Omari, had behavioral problems that sometimes compelled teachers to physically remove him from the room. One day, when Omari seemed to be nearing a tantrum, Goldberg managed to calm the student with the mellowing Brian Eno-made music app, Bloom.
"When I saw the effect these had on the kids," says Kathy Posa, the school’s principal, "I pulled together as much budget as I could and ordered 90." Schecht estimates that about 5,000 iPads are currently in use throughout the 56 schools in District 75, New York’s citywide special education district. They’re not sure just what it is about iPads that special ed students, and particularly autistic students, respond to—some combination of the visual and tactile, and the way the device instantly reacts to inputs.
Goldberg points to Jason Haughton, an African-American teen in a red sweater, perhaps the least verbal member of the PS 177 Technology Band. Jason had "tactile issues," Goldberg says, and initially didn’t like to feel pressure on his fingers. But Goldberg could tell Jason had a strong ear for music. Goldberg rigged the music software on his computer such that even a gentle touch on Jason’s iPad would put forth a full, pleasing note. Then, very gradually, Goldberg adjusted the software so that Jason would have to press the iPad a little longer to still elicit that full sound. "It was like getting his ear to conduct his hand, out of that tactile sensitivity," says Goldberg. "Because he does have a fantastic ear."
No one is probably more delighted to discover the iPad’s usefulness to special needs students than Apple itself, suggests Schecht. Apple set out, after all, simply to make a device to capture a broad consumer computing market. "I don’t think Apple had any idea they would have an impact on education" with the iPad, says Schecht, "and special education is just the gravy. They had no idea it was going to work so well with students with special needs."
It's something Apple is playing close attention to now, though. "We're seeing uses out there that are just heartwarming," Phil Schiller, SVP of worldwide marketing, says a little before the 13:00 mark of this Apple-produced video, which shows various cases of autistic youth engaging with the iPad.
"It’s not a magic bullet," concedes Schecht. "But in some cases, it really is."
The members of the PS 177 Technology Band include Rachel Rodriguez, Ryan Rodriguez, Jason Haughton, Denzel Jackson, Jaquan Bostick, and Tobi Lakes. To hear "4-2-4 Jam," the PS 177 Technology Band original, download it on iTunes; proceeds go to PS 177.