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Featured Spotlight

Longwood alumna uses iPads to help students with autism

March 21, 2012

Katy Lernihan

For Katy Lernihan M.S.Ed. '08, the workday flies by.

As a special education teacher at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va., her daily routine involves balancing the needs and abilities of six students with varying degrees of autism.

Lernihan is well-prepared for the job. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies with a concentration in special education from Longwood University, she continued her studies and earned a master's degree in education with a concentration in special education.

"Special education is certainly not for the faint of heart," she said. "But my students are funny - 10 times funnier than any comedian without even trying - and they're innocent and inquisitive. Seeing them progress over a school year is by far the best part of my job."

Lernihan adapts to her students' needs and utilizes different educational tools and methods to help them excel. She most recently began using iPads in the classroom. Featuring special programs to enhance communication, regulate behavior and maintain attention to academic tasks, the new technology is having a significant impact.

"Prior to using the iPads, it was very difficult to get any of my students to engage in an activity for more than five to 10 minutes," Lernihan said. "Now I can use a program on the iPad to help them learn in an interactive way, without having to micromanage behavior. My students are making an exciting and positive association with learning."

Lernihan's use of iPads in the classroom was recently featured on ABC News Channel 7 in Washington, D.C. Six-year-old Roberto Flores, a nonverbal student who now uses the iPad to communicate, makes requests and participates in small groups with the help of this new technology. His parents were so pleased with their son's progress that they're now using an iPad at home.

Given her success as a teacher, it might be easy to assume that Lernihan always knew she'd pursue a career in education.

"My mother is a teacher, and, growing up, I always said I would not become one," she said. "But I became interested in special education programs and the Special Olympics at my high school. During graduate school, I interned at Autism Outreach, Inc., in Reston, Va., and I really enjoyed working with the children and applying behavior-based approaches."

Special education seemed a natural fit.

"I never think a child should be limited by a disability," Lernihan said. "There are ways to overcome challenges. Sometimes you just have to be creative.