Assistive Technology

A New Way Forward

Tech-based solutions, such as tools for teaching kids how to recognize facial expressions, are giving educators a means of helping autistic students acquire basic life skills.

Tech-based solutions, such as tools for teaching kids how to recognize facial expressions, are giving educators a means of helping autistic students acquire basic life skills.

To celebrate the end of last school year, a select group of students from the New York City school system threw a party-- a block party, to be exact, complete with rides, cotton candy, and dancing.

But this particular block party didn't take place on the streets of the Big Apple; it happened in the virtual world known as Second Life, and the party planners and attendees were participants in a pilot program intended to help students with autism become more equipped to operate in the mainstream population.

Called 3-D Worlds, the project included about 60 autistic students from six high schools, says Cara Coffina, coordinator for applied learning for New York's District 75, which serves students with autism and other disabilities citywide. Of the district's 23,000 kids, about 5,000 have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

The program had three overarching objectives: increasing communication, expanding social skills, and applying functional living skills, Coffina says. The district purchased an island in Second Life and, with assistance from New York-based educational organization LearningTimes, designed a world for the students where they could communicate with one another and hone practical skills.

Instructing on such tasks as opening a bank account and shopping for groceries, teachers used a two-tiered approach: Students practiced in the virtual world what they learned in the classroom. In establishing a virtual bank account, for example, a teacher or other adult would play the role of bank teller, and students, as their custom-designed avatars, would wait in line to set up their accounts.

"It's so connected with real-life skills," Coffina says, noting that the ultimate goal is for students to transfer their online skills to the outside world.

To help develop their social skills, all the students in the program from the participating schools would meet weekly for "community day" and interact with one another, including forming interest groups that would gather in certain areas of the Second Life environment to chat.

"The real test was when they would communicate with other people, with students they didn't know," Coffina says. As kids from the Bronx conversed with their peers from Staten Island, some chose text-based chatting, coming prepared with scripts or conversation prompts to help move things along, but most opted to use their voices. For the culminating virtual party, students were the organizers, responsible for carrying out such tasks as renting picnic tables and ordering food.

"They were so excited for the party," Coffina says. "They genuinely had fun doing it."

Technologically, the program was easily executed. Second Life can be a bandwidth hog, Coffina says, which limits the number of participants that can be managed. But based on the good feedback from both students and teachers, the district has expanded the pilot project from 12 weeks to a year and is adding six more schools. "It was very powerful," Coffina says. "Overwhelmingly, the students got a lot out of it. I just see reactions from them that I don't see when they're doing anything else."

The Second Life project is one of the growing number of ways educators are turning to technology to help address the needs of students with autism-- a population that is growing at a rate of more than 10 percent per year, according to the Autism Society of America. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 150 children has an autism spectrum disorder.

"There's a tidal wave called autism coming at the school districts," says Kevin Custer, CEO of Virtual Expert Clinics, which creates training and lesson development software for teachers of autistic students. "We're less than four years away from having 1 million children in the US with autism."

The general push in US school systems to integrate autistic children into mainstream classrooms means that every teacher will likely have one autistic student in the classroom at some point. And the unique needs of each autistic child-- "What is true for one is not true for another," Custer says-- can present challenges for educators. But they are ones that technology can be very effective at taking on, because tech tools can be easily individualized based upon a learner's needs and abilities.

"Technology in the classroom is the way to go," says Ellenmorris Tiegerman, executive director of the Glen Cove, NY-based School for Language and Communication Development, which serves children with language and autism spectrum disorders. "It really allows teachers to differentiate instruction."

"There's a tidal wave called autism coming at the school districts. We're less than four years away from having 1 million children in the US with autism."

Breaking Language Barriers

Barbara Wollak, a speech-language pathologist and assistive technology specialist at Saint Paul Public Schools, Minnesota's second-largest school district, uses an arsenal of technology tools-- many of them web based-- to boost the language arts skills of autistic students. She says that the behavior problems exhibited by autistic students are often communication related, so improving their ability to communicate can make it easier for them to function in a classroom setting.

"I believe reading and writing, and speaking and listening are all related," Wollak says. "Growth in one area affects another. If students haven't learned to write, it's hard to break the barrier to understanding language."

To help, Wollak has developed an e-mail pen pal program she named e-Pals that joins special education students, including some with autism, at Saint Paul's Highland Park Junior High with preservice teachers at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. The preservice teachers are under the tutelage of Professor David Koppenhaver, with whom Wollak also collaborates at a Minnesota summer literacy session. Both sides gain from the e-Pals program. Wollak's kids learn the pragmatic aspects of communication, such as the rudiments of having a back-and-forth conversation; she instructs them to write messages with a structure, including a greeting, questions, and a closing. The preservice teachers gain exposure to what will be a professional responsibility-- teaching special needs students to read and write-- and learn to apply online tools to instruction.

"By seventh grade, kids have been struggling for so long," says Wollak, who spends two days a week at Highland Park in addition to providing assistive technology support across the district. "Having a college pen pal is really motivating."

To help students with their spelling and writing, Wollak uses Co:Writer, a word-prediction program from tech solutions provider Don Johnston that interprets errors in spelling and grammar and suggests corrections as students write. The program can also read students' writing out loud, to assist them with correlating spoken and written language.

On top of e-Pals, Wollak has launched a blog called Virtual Authors, where her students post about current events and various subjects they're interested in. The blog, like e-Pals, keeps students motivated, which is key to their engagement, Wollak says. "They keep saying they're published authors."

Social Literacy

"The online world is a rich world of tools," says Kathleen McClaskey, president of EdTech Associates, an Amherst, NH-based ed tech consulting firm. "It comes down to understanding who your learners are and finding tools that support them."

McClaskey, whose company also provides assistive technology consulting services to schools and districts, recently directed a two-year project that studied the benefits technology can have on autistic students' learning outcomes. The Autism, Communication and Technology project launched in 2006 at the Spaulding Youth Center for children with autism and other neurological disorders. Five classrooms were outfitted with Smart Boards and the accompanying notebook software, and other online resources, with the goal of boosting group discussion and interaction. Starting out with a morning attendance activity in which students would circle their own photos, teachers began using the interactive whiteboards in reading lessons, along with Starfall's Learn to Read online program. For math and science, they incorporated interactive sites and created lessons with whiteboard templates.

McClaskey says there was a "huge transformation" in the students over the course of the program, even among those who previously had difficulty in a classroom environment. They acquired such positive behaviors as taking turns, raising their hands, peer modeling, and increased attention. "They're so much more engaged in learning," McClaskey says. "If it was up to the kids, they would use the Smart Board all day."

Similar results have been seen by Kristine Willford among the autistic students she instructs at Heritage Elementary School in San Antonio. Like many autistic children, Willford's students struggle with social literacy. They were unable to recognize facial expressions and had difficulty with nonverbal communication. So Willford looked to a new software program from Don Johnston for a remedy.

"We know that students with autism miss social cues," says the company's president, Ruth Ziolkowski. This past spring, Don Johnston launched Faceland, a software tool that helps children learn to distinguish facial expressions, which allows them to understand and react to how others are feeling.

The software features amusement-park-themed games to teach children to recognize surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, and sadness through clues, repetition, and mirroring. The program also includes a progress-tracking function that enables teachers to provide reports to parents and other staff.

Now in her second semester of using Faceland, Willford says she saw progress with her students after about eight weeks. Their new ability to interpret body language shows in their bolder interactions with peers during art and music classes and recess. "We want them to learn to be as independent and productive as possible," Willford says. As an example, she tells the story of one autistic student who approached a classmate who was crying, hugged, and smiled back when the tearful student smiled at him. The reaction was a distinct step up from his usual flat affect.

Practical Strategies

While integrating autistic students into general education classrooms is a measure of success for Willford and other instructors, it's not necessarily an easy transition to manage.

Typically, the solution to providing extra support in the classroom has been to hire another body to work with an autistic child. But that practice becomes less feasible as the number of students with autism grows. That's why Virtual Expert Clinics developed AutismPro, a software program aimed at giving teachers the tools to meet autistic students' needs, including how to assess and respond to their complex behavior patterns.

The software offers two web-based programs. AutismPro Workshops features about 50 hours of online materials, including strategies for addressing specific issues and behaviors, and AutismPro Resources supplies lesson plans and includes a tracking and reporting element to allow for communication between teachers, parents, and special ed experts.

Eloise McGarry, director of support services for Vermont's Rutland City Public Schools, says her district decided to adopt the software this school year as it greets higher numbers of autistic students. While all staff will have access to the online workshop training, the district is also supplying one teacher per school with additional training.

"In Vermont, we're struggling with how to get expertise," she says. "We can send teachers to one-day workshops here and there, but [AutismPro] gives teachers practical strategies they can use." For example, the workshops suggest creating activity organizers to help children work through problematic tasks. Teachers can then apply methods, whether a student's trouble lies in mastering a lesson or adjusting to a classroom schedule.

Despite the challenges of helping autistic children thrive in the classroom, McGarry says the teachers in her district who have completed the training are excited about the new resources.

"Kids with autism haven't learned the social side, and teachers are not well equipped to teach kids how to behave," says Custer, Virtual Expert Clinics' CEO. "Enabling teachers to have basic information is a giant leap forward."

For more information on assistive technology, visit In the Browse by Topic menu, click on Special Needs Students.

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of THE Journal.