LAS CRUCES, N.M. — "Want to go and do science?"
Anastacia Marquez, a 9-year-old student at Sunrise Elementary, pauses for a beat, pondering the question from one of her teachers, Melissa Flavell.
Marquez extends her left index finger, and presses the corresponding answer on her iPad.
It's a simple exchange between student and teacher — one that was more difficult a few months ago.
Marquez has lived with multiple brain tumors since she was less than a year old. Those tumors — there are now five — and the seven neurosurgeries she has endured silenced her speech. Through a combination of mouthing and whispering, Marquez can identify many letters of the alphabet, and their corresponding sounds. But her ability to communicate verbally is significantly limited.
"When she's happy, we know she's happy," said Sunrise principal Brian Peterson, who said Marquez beams at music class. "But the poor squirt isn't always happy ... She's been through a lot and we don't always know how to help."
Thanks to Peterson's love of gadgets, dedicated work by Sunrise staff members, and a popular piece of technology, that's starting to change.
Marquez communicates more precisely and efficiently thanks to a specialized application on a school iPad called Proloquo2Go. Teachers can ask Marquez direct questions, and she answers by pressing an icon on the iPad's touch screen.
The device is property of Sunrise Elementary, but Marquez carries it home so she can take advantage of the enhanced communication ability it provides.
Maria Marquez, 10, is one of Anastacia's three sisters. She also attends Sunrise Elementary. Maria said Anastacia used to communicate primarily with nods — or by patting her head when it ached.
That's different now.
Said Maria: "We can ask her, "How are you feeling?' and she points out the words."
The Marquez family can also ask Anastacia what she wants to do.
"She likes drawing," Maria said. "...Usually with pencils."
Adriana Jimenez, an educational assistant, said Anastacia tells her whether she wants to play on the swings or slide at recess.
Teresa Calderon, the special education teacher with primary responsibility for Anastacia, said that's how the iPad most benefits her student.
"It's most helpful for what she wants and needs," Calderon said. "That can have lots of verbiage."
Added Flavell while holding the iPad: "She can pick this up and show us how she's feeling."
Because most of what Anastacia understands right now is visual — she has mastery level understanding of the alphabet, Calderon said, but can't yet read — the icons on Proloquo2Go are critical.
Phrases such as "I feel sick" and "I feel sad" are on the program's "I feel" screen, along with an illustration of the emotion. To Anastacia, the phrases, by themselves, look too similar, Calderon said.
Thanks to the technology, Calderon said, the teachers spend more time educating Anastacia, and less time trying to communicate.
Peterson learned of the Proloquo2Go application last summer. Recently, he was accepted into the Apple Distinguished Educator program. According to Apple's website, there are only 1,500 educators in the program worldwide. It was during an Apple Distinguished Educator training in Phoenix that Peterson found out about Proloquo2Go.
"I thought it could be a real nice solution for Anastacia," he said.
Near the end of last fall's semester, the iPad and application were ready.
Calderon said she took the device home during the winter break, learned it and programmed it especially for Anastacia.
"Every day we make changes to it," Calderon said. "We want her to respond verbally, if she can, but if not, she can use this."
The teaching staff is working on getting Anastacia to understand and communicate the concept of degrees. She often suffers headaches, but can't yet describe the level of pain she feels, which would allow the school staff to know the best way to help.
"My hat's off to the staff members because I kind of dropped it in their laps," Peterson said. "I knew if any team could pull it off, it would be them."
The school staff members said Anastacia walks more now. She uses a wheel chair, from which she hangs her Justin Bieber backpack. She also communicates more, to a larger group of people.
"She's come a long way since the beginning of the school year," said Teresa Hernandez, Anastacia's teacher in a third-grade classroom. "...Everyone in the school really pulls together."
Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com