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
"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."
"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
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.
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 www.thejournal.com. In the Browse by
Topic menu, click on Special Needs Students.
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of THE Journal.