Faced with limited budgets and special-education staff that are stretched thin, many districts are turning to technology products that can help teach educators about the needs of children with autism, while also providing activities to help students with autism develop important skills.
Because of the high cost of face-to-face training, Ontario’s Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board was only able to train a small portion of its staff to support students with autism. Seeking to reach the rest of its staff and make them aware of the teaching methods and therapies used with students with ASD, the district purchased software from Virtual Expert Clinics Inc., called AutismPro.
“It has been received [with] an overwhelmingly positive response by staff members,” said Joel Godecki, the district’s ASD project consultant.
TBCDSB also formed a partnership with Confederation College, in which students in the college’s developmental social worker program receive training from AutismPro as part of the course requirement.
“Training people before they get into the school system is key,” Godecki said.
AutismPro includes three basic tools. The first is a professional development program, AutismPro Workshops, that gives educators, paraprofessionals, and parents access to a 40-hour, six-course training program that highlights practical strategies to use in day-to-day activities with a child who has autism.
The second tool, AutismPro Professional, is an intervention planning tool for individuals who need support, or who don’t have a lot of specialized knowledge, in developing a program for a child with autism. The tool asks questions and, based on the autism team’s responses, generates a curriculum tailored to an individual child, helping the team in selecting goals, objectives, and activities to implement the plan. The student’s progress is plotted on a graph, and the team is able to use a journal to communicate and stay current with the student’s progress and activities.
The third part in the AutismPro package is AutismPro Resources, intended for individuals who have some knowledge in working with autism spectrum disorders. It contains more than 300 objectives, 3,500 activity plans, and an array of strategies for teaching and supporting children with autism.
Vermont’s Rutland Public Schools also began using AutismPro this year to help staff members develop individual programs for students with autism.
Ellie McGarry, Rutland’s director of support services, said the six district employees taking graduate-level courses specializing in autism have access to AutismPro Resources for designing and delivering lessons to students with ASD.
McGarry and her staff are responsible for 500 students from age three through second grade, and 22 of those students have been diagnosed with autism. Many paraprofessionals in the district have used AutismPro’s training, and parents can access it as well and can use home-based activities with their children.
“We have an ever-growing population of students in our district being diagnosed on the autism spectrum,” she said.
HandHold Adaptive’s iPrompts is a picture-based communication tool for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The mobile software lets users—including parents, special educators, and therapists—create picture-based schedules, timers to show when an activity will begin, and prompts between two images. iPrompts also includes a library of several hundred stock images.
Co-founders Dan and Carey Tedesco created iPrompts after becoming frustrated by the available tools to work with their son, Evan, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at a young age.
(For more about the Tedescos’ efforts to make sure Evan is fully supported at home and in school, see “One parent’s view: Caring for a child with autism ‘becomes a way of life’.”)
“My wife had a brilliant ‘a-ha’ moment that we should design a PECS system for a mobile device, and out of that was born the vision for iPrompts, and HandHold Adaptive,” said Dan Tedesco, who describes iPrompts as a simple picture-based communication aid for parents and other caregivers to help facilitate an ordinary life for a child with autism.
iPrompts launched in May and is available for $49.99 through the Apple store. Tedesco said copies have sold as far away as Japan, Austria, Australia, England, and Ireland. Several hundred copies have been downloaded so far.
Users can add their own images to the image library, including illustrations or pictures taken with an iPhone. Future iPrompts versions will include plans for audio and video prompts to accompany the images. Users also can submit their own images to share with the entire iPrompts community, and they can suggest images to be added to the library.
Its applications extend beyond children with autism, Tedesco added, noting that iPrompts also is useful for people who are unable to communicate as a result of other disabilities.
In addition to iPrompts, HandHeld Adaptive is developing data-tracking applications for parents to compare therapies and diets for children with autism, and the Tedescos also are hoping to create a feature that lets parents communicate this information directly to researchers.
Therapeutic video games and social skills training software are planned for the future.
“The premise for HandHeld Adaptive is to use handheld technology to serve the special-needs community and bridge the digital divide with them,” Tedesco said. “This is a tremendously underserved population, and we want to be the ones to bring this to them.”
Another relatively new product to hit the market is Vizzle, from Monarch Teaching Technologies (MTT) of Ohio.
MTT developed out of the Monarch Center for Autism, which opened in 2000 as a need arose for a specialty school for local children with autism. The charter school offers programs from preschool to students up to age 22, as well as residential services. The center also takes students on community activities to restaurants and movie theaters.
“There is a huge need for services, and some school districts don’t know how to deal with students with autism. Not all students need to come to us, but we want to share our ideas and best practices and help keep those kids in their districts,” said Lauren Stafford, director of instructional design for MTT.
The cost to instruct and support a student with autism can cost about three times as much as educating a non-disabled student, said Terry Murphy, MTT’s chief executive officer.
Murphy said the idea for Vizzle began when educators determined that software featuring visual representations would be much more useful than a manual of printed materials. Teachers would be able to share easily and have a screen-based activity for students instead of a tabletop activity.
“It lets teachers, speech therapists, and parents pull up the program wherever the child is, as long as you have an internet connection,” Stafford said. “It gives [adults] the ability to work as a team for the child.”
“The Holy Grail of education is to get teachers and parents to work together,” Murphy said. “Making Vizzle web-based lets parents and teachers use the materials, and that saves a lot of headaches.”
Transitioning from one activity or place to the next can be troublesome for children with autism. But parents can create stories about family events, holidays, or the child’s favorite food or object, and the child is able to access that in the classroom and have some familiarity throughout the school day.
Educators, including speech-language pathologists, contributed to Vizzle’s content. Whenever someone creates an image, is it added to the image library, which contains more than 1,000 items. Educators can use pictures, text, video, and audio to give their students access to materials that fit different learning styles.
A shared folder follows a student as he or she moves from elementary to middle school, which lets a new teacher view the student’s academic history and add on to that folder.
“Kids with autism have to learn visually—they do not process auditory information well,” Murphy said.
“A child with autism has a hard time maintaining information, holding onto it, and being able to reflect on it,” Stafford said. “Outbursts are their way of telling us that something is wrong, that information isn’t getting through. How can we increase their communication to help them understand us, and us understand them? It’s not bad behavior—those are their communication skills.”
The Activity Trainer, a video modeling program for children with autism, lets teachers use videos to teach any targeted activity or skill. It includes a skills library full of activities for teachers to use or customize, and a user library that lets teachers create their own activities.
Because children with autism learn better visually, this video modeling system targets that area, its creators say.
“Research proves that video modeling increases acquisition rates across a wide variety of skill sets for individuals with autism,” said Karl Smith, founder of Accelerations Educational Software, which produces the Activity Trainer, and father of a child with autism.
John Williams, the man who helped develop the idea of assistive technology, including the term itself, said this type of video modeling “could be the next tool that makes a significant improvement on education by making practical what research has shown us for a long time.”
The Activity Trainer helps educators teach their students with autism in practical ways, Williams added.
The National Center for Technology Innovation works with TeachTown, a curriculum tool for developmental ages from toddlers through first grade. It offers 600 lessons in language, academics, and life skills. Students receive rewards after achieving objectives, and everything a child does is tracked through the computer and sent to educators, an IEP, or parents.
In addition, off-computer activities reinforce concepts that students learn on the computer. For instance, a computer lesson that helps a child learn the names of body parts might have an off-computer activity that asks a child to play with a doll and name its different body parts.
“There’s a very substantial amount of reporting, so we can tell how a child is doing, how often a teacher is using it, and if parents are using it and how often,” said Christina Whalen, an autism specialist who founded TeachTown.
“This program is good for any kid at that age—activities are visual and repetitive, which tend to help children with autism,” Whalen said.
The program targets instruction based on how a child is doing. A child without special needs might advance more quickly through its activities, but the activities reinforce concepts that all children should learn, such as numbers or letters. TeachTown slows or speeds up the pace of activities based on a child’s progress. The program is intended for younger children, but activities can be customized for an older child who might, for instance, have language skills at a three-year-old’s level.
Whalen said she has noticed that TeachTown helps engage students with autism, has them use language more frequently, and encourages social interaction.
In fact, hard data on those observations should be available within a year, she added.
“We want to make the transition into inclusion more successful for these kids,” Whalen said.
Monarch Teaching Technologies’ Vizzle