Using Technology to Learn and Grow: Computer-Based Intervention for Individuals with Autism
In 1996, on a typical family vacation to Disney World, I had an epiphany. I was at an exhibit at Epcot called the “Home of Tomorrow,” when a light bulb went on in my head. My son Blake was 5 years old at the time—3 years into his autism journey. Here I was in the middle of a house that was destined to be the eventual home of my child with autism. Every room was equipped with touch-screen technology that allowed access to the inner workings of the home environment. With just a touch of a button, lights, televisions, ovens—you name it—turned on and off. Icons relayed information to control room temperature, security, bath-tub water temperature, etc. It was really quite unbelievable technology for 1996. Of course, these days it wouldn’t quite be the showcase that it was back then. Today, my telephone (and Blake’s iPod, for that matter) has touch-screen technology. But back in the mid-90s, this was exciting. At the time, I realized that if Blake (as well as other individuals with autism) could access this technology, they would be able to maximize their potential for independence. So, it was then that I realized that accessing technology—all it had and would have to offer—was the key. And it was then that I began my path into computer-based intervention (CBI) for individuals with autism.
Successful Teaching with Computers
Over the past 13 years, I have had the opportunity to work with many students and utilize a plethora of software programs, as well as develop my own for use in my therapy center. What I have discovered is that individuals with autism usually take to the computer like fish to water. This may be somewhat of an overgeneralization, but, nonetheless, it fits. In theorizing why these individuals do so well on the computer, I have come up with several factors. First, the computer software presents itself as a constant in a universe that is quite dynamic. As we all know, those with autism tend to be more comfortable with situations with which they are familiar. Although today’s interactive software adapts as the individual progresses, the format stays the same. Another factor that appears to be related to the success of CBI is the animation often utilized in these programs. When I say “these programs,” I am referring to programs called “specialized software.” Specialized software programs have been distinctly designed for teaching the skills we discuss below. They are available only through certain vendors and are not the type of software one would purchase in a retail store. Although there are some very useful programs that we call “off-the-shelf” software, I don’t generally recommend these as they are not specifically designed for the special-needs population and can often be inappropriate. Other reasons for CBI success include the vertical plane presentation and the multi-modality approach that are often present in specialized software programs.
Over the years, there has been research on the use of CBI with children with autism. In a 2000 report by Moore and Calvert, the impact of computers on children’s vocabulary development was assessed. Progress was compared between utilizing behavioral training and computer training. The results revealed that children with autism were more attentive, more motivated and learned more vocabulary using the computer than engaging in the behavioral program. These results suggest the need for development of computer software to teach vocabulary to children who have autism.
Another study by Bernard-Opitz, Sriram, and Nakhoda- Sapuan (2001) evaluated the training of children with autism in learning problem-solving skills via CBI. The computer program used demonstrated animated solutions to problems. Results concluded that young children with autism can be taught problemsolving strategies with the aid of computer interfaces.
The consensus is that CBI is often more successful than traditional methodologies when teaching language, reading and even social skills development.
I have used specialized software for training in the following areas:
- Cause and effect
- Augmentative communication
- Social skills development
- Attention and processing
- Work skills
- Life skills
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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