Alternative keyboard helps autistic kids communicate

Autism can build a wall of poor communication between those struggling with the condition and their families. While a personal computer can help bridge the divide, the distraction and complexity of a keyboard can be an insurmountable obstacle. Now, using a unique keyboard with only two “keys” and a novel curriculum, teachers with an initiative called Project Blue Skies are giving autistic children the ability to communicate and also explore the online world.

At the heart of the project is a device called the OrbiTouch. Human-factors engineer Pete McAlindon of BlueOrb in Maitland, Fl., dreamed up the concept behind the OrbiTouch more than a decade ago as a way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and provide computer access to people with limited or no use of their fingers.

“If you are unable to use a keyboard and mouse effectively or at all because of a physical disability, what chance do you have of using a computer?” asked McAlindon. “The OrbiTouch is designed to keep people with physical or developmental disabilities connected to their computers.”

The Project Blue Skies curriculum is based on the functions of the OrbiTouch, which allows a user to input letters, symbols, and any other command by independently manipulating two computer-mouse shaped grips forward, back, diagonally, and to the sides.

With Project Blue Skies, the hardware is paired with lesson plans, training aids such as games, and assessment tools. The two-grip device is ideal for people with autism, project organizers say, because it is less distracting than a traditional keyboard and does not require finger motion.

In addition, users create various letter and number combinations by matching color schemes indicated on the two grips, so the training curriculum matches well to a game-like environment.