A new computer program helps teach students with developmental disabilities. YNN's Geoff Redick reports.
SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- It's a Friday morning at Schenectady's Wildwood School and high school students Jude Killar and Isaiah Welke are learning. But it's not reading, writing or arithmetic they're being taught. The subject of the day is socialization. A simple game helps the two practice common interactions.
"It's like a conversation game, where you start a conversation," Isaiah explains.
"I ask Isaiah a question and he answers it," says Jude. "Then there are usually follow-up questions. You just ask those questions and then he tells you more about it."
It may not seem like much of a "game," but the concept is important. Both Isaiah and Jude live with certain levels of developmental disability. The game helps them analyze and experience emotional and social interactions.
Speech pathologist Tammi Crisafulli and social worker Gwen Buckley, both employees at Wildwood School, came up with the game close to a decade ago. Their idea involved index cards and a jar filled with simple conversation starters.
"You'd pull a paper out of the jar and you'd turn to your friend and (read it)," demonstrates Buckley. "For example: 'What is a job you would like to have?' A follow-up question might ask, 'What does a person with that job do?'"
But after several years, the old game with jars and index cards grew stale.
"The students had read them all or they'd recognize certain favorites and keep pulling those out of the jar," says Buckley.
Crisafulli acknowledged, they needed to bring the games into the 21st century.
"We started saying, 'We need an app.'"
An application, or computer program, would give the game greater appeal for students. But without formal training in computer programming, Tammi and Gwen weren't sure how to proceed.
"Neither in speech school or in social work school did they teach you anything about 'writing code," explains Buckley, with a laugh.
That problem was solved by two software engineers named John Kloptosky and Robert Clancy. A managing partner at Spiral Design Studio, Clancy offered the design and art, while Kloptosky's company, Gavant Software, provided the nuts and bolts for several "arcade style" games.
"We spoke with and worked together with the Wildwood team, to understand what challenges they face," said Kloptosky, recounting long e-mail chains with many shortfalls and setbacks.
The result of the hard work is Expression Arcade: A set of iPad games about conversation and emotion, which allow players to experience social interaction on a technological level. Certain games allow for charades-style expressions of anger, fear, sadness or joy. Others engender communication through different topics of interest.
All are presented in stunning clarity, with top-shelf animation on the iPad screen. Each game is also careful to avoid unnecessary distractions of sight and sound, which could sidetrack certain individuals on the autism spectrum.
"The iPad has this interesting and unique quality to blur the lines between games and education," said Kloptosky. "Many of us have iPads and we interact with the apps and take it for granted. The students here (at Wildwood) deserve that too."
"We took this simple idea and built something creative out of it," adds Clancy, "and we probably broke new ground."
As impressive as the program is, what's even more astonishing is the bill Clancy and Kloptosky charged Wildwood for their services: A total of $0.00.
"It was just...it was unbelievable," said Tammi Crisafulli. "When they said they were going to do it for free, we were just completely blown away."
The way Robert Clancy and his company see it, sometimes a good deed is warranted by the positivity it brings to the world.
"The people who make the biggest difference in the world are the ones who make the little ones, each and every day," said Clancy, paraphrasing one of Spiral Design Studio's core beliefs. "Hopefully this (game) is one of those things that makes a difference for other families."
The app, officially called "Expression Arcade," is now used by students with disabilities in dozens of schools across the country. It is free to download on iPad or to a desktop or laptop computer via the iTunes store.