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Autistic student Emily Buzcek, 13, has already mastered the iPod Touch, which helps her learn and communicate. The iPad's larger screen will be a big improvment, parents say.Tim Fraser

When you enter Emily Buczek's Toronto classroom, it's like Times Square: Everywhere you look, there's a new visual distraction.

A picture of each student is tacked onto a large, colourful map above his or her country of origin (Emily's mug hovers over Poland).

There's a shelf of well-loved toys - a slumped-over clown, a plush frog - and rows of picture books, among them Emily's favourite: a cardboard volume of Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

All these diversions are there to keep up with students' fleeting attention spans: Emily and her peers at Beverley School all have developmental and/or physical disabilities.

Emily, a profoundly autistic 13-year-old with an overgrown pixie cut and fingernails that have been cut or chewed to the quick, doesn't fit the stereotype of an early adopter of the iPad.

But parents and educators of children with developmental disabilities - particularly autism spectrum disorders (ASD) - have celebrated its release. While the device was created mostly for media consumption, it has plenty of surprising uses for children with such disabilities.

Emily doesn't have an iPad in her hands yet, but the learning curve won't be very steep when it's released in Canada at the end of the month - she's already mastered the iPod Touch at school and at home.

It's been a godsend, her mother Christina says. With an autistic child, even the simplest tasks can be emotionally and physically draining.

She recalls many days when Emily, who is mostly non-verbal, indicated she wanted to go shopping - but wouldn't say where.

"I'd be driving her toward one store and pulling in and she'd be really upset because it wasn't the one she wanted," she says. "It's wasting a lot of time, it's a lot of frustration."

But then she downloaded the iConverse app on Emily's iPod Touch. One of many assisted communication programs available for people with disabilities, it allowed Ms. Buczek to load photos of her daughter's favourite stores, set to audio recordings of their names. Now all Emily has to do is run the app and click on the button that corresponds with her choice.

While Apple has not yet revealed Canadian prices for the iPad (it starts at $500 in the U.S.), Ms. Buczek says a price tag of even several hundred dollars would be significantly cheaper (not to mention more portable) than some of the assisted communication devices currently on the market, which can cost more than $10,000.

Emily, like many kids with ASD, struggles with her fine motor skills, and a larger screen would help her navigate the apps with greater precision, Ms. Buczek says.

At Emily's school, six teachers are using the iPod Touch with their developmentally-disabled students, as part of a University of Toronto study led by faculty of information professor Rhonda McEwen. Professor McEwen wants to see how it can help them communicate.

So far, their greatest use is easing anxiety among students, says Emily's teacher, Ian Stuart.

The iPod Touch that he uses with his class has been outfitted with speakers.

"Touch the bee," says a tinny female voice in one app. Displayed on the screen is a chocolate bunny, a bee and a shopping cart. Emily's hooked index finger hovers over all three options before it presses down on the bee.

Mr. Stuart frequently uses apps like this to help Emily focus before she moves on to a new activity in class, since transitions can be very difficult for kids with ASD.

There's a stack of deep blue one-inch binders in his classroom that are collecting dust. Before, whenever he'd head out with his students, he'd have to bring them along.

Inside each binder are pages of picture cards arranged in various sequences. A picture of a ball and swing followed by a computer means recess is followed by computer time.

Since Mr. Stuart has used the iPod Touch, he's done away with the binders. All those sequences can be stored in apps on the device, which has become a magic wand of sorts.

"[When we transition] some won't even look at me," he says. "But then I'll pull out the iPod and when they look at it and hear sounds it's like an epiphany."

Software developers who enjoyed success with accessibility apps for the iPhone and iPod Touchhave now focused their attention on the iPad.

The latest version of Proloquo2Go, the most popular AAC app in the iTunes store, was released at the start of the month to work on the iPad. As of Friday, it was ranked No. 34 overall in the United States among all 185,000-plus apps.

It can be used by people with disabilities - particularly non-verbal ones, many of whom have strong visual memories - to express their wants and needs.

"It's just a game changer," Samuel Sennott, co-creator of the app, says of the iPad. "It's … [a]portable, table-top solution for people with physical impairments, people with visual impairments. You can see more on the screen."

For Stacie Carroll, another teacher at Beverley School, there's another perk to using these gadgets with students: "It's the cool factor," she says.

"This is their world. They pick up a cell [phone]and they know what to do with it."

Whether they're using an iDevice for scheduling, learning or easing anxiety, the key is that they blend in with other kids, she says.

She uses eight apps regularly with her students, including a few unusual ones. She shows off iSeismo, which graphs even the slightest movements. She's used it teach her class - a rather fidgety bunch - how to sit still and control their body movements.

Both she and Mr. Stuart say they see great potential in their classrooms for the iPad and its larger interface.

"A camera on [the iPad]would make it nearly perfect," Ms. Carroll says.

Anissa Hersh, a speech-language pathologist on the ASD team at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Hamilton, says she's interested in seeing how the device might benefit the students she works with as well.

"You have a whole generation of adults now who were never taught independence," Ms. Hersh says. "If you have this technology, and know how to use it, the idea is that down the road, [they]can use it in their work field."

Alex Stephens's five-year-old son Luc has ASD and is "completely infatuated with computers," he says. He's an expert with his father's iPhone, which works as both an entertainment device and an educational tool.

Mr. Stephens can barely keep up with all the unanticipated expenses that come with his son's disability: special vitamins, speech therapy and social therapy.

At the moment, an iPad is a luxury he can't afford, he says. "But if I were convinced it would help Luc, I'd buy it in a heartbeat."