Computer use for people with autism
type of computer program could I use for my autistic son/girl education?"
question always embarrasses me a lot. It is almost like asking a cabinet maker
"What could I do with a combined
Jointer-planner-vertical shaper to build some furniture for my son's bedroom?"
many powerful tools the computer is still just a tool. As such, it can do a lot
if we know what we want to do, but even
then it will only do certain things and gets is usefulness from the combination
with other tools, some as powerful, some much more basic... If we want to take
really advantage of the power of the computer or for that matter of any powerful
tool, it is necessary to take the subject in a diagonally opposed way.
start with the person that is in the end concerned by our endeavor. In our
present case we want to provide some support to an autistic person. We must
start with that person's needs and what we want to achieve in order to satisfy
them. Then we may ask ourselves or some computer specialist(s) if using a
computer might not help us achieve the goals that we have selected.
Popper called the computer "a
IDENTIFYING THE NEEDS
the needs of a specific autistic person and prioritizing them is hence the first
step of a meaningful approach. This in itself could justify a whole paper, it
involves parents preferences, professionals recommendations and whenever
possible and to the maximum extent, the concerned person's direct expression of
requirements. We talk here of final needs, such as expressed by parents,
professionals and autistic persons themselves.
goals can be extremely basic such as: "We would like to improve hand-eye
coordination", "We would like to enhance the attention level/span".
These are more likely to be expressed by the professionals in charge than by the
parents or the autistic person.
can also be pretty much in line with some academic or pre-academic skills
developments such as "I'd like my child to learn the colors",
"I'd like him/her to be able to read", or the child himself may
have expressed or made us understand: "I want to play music".
domain concerns social skills: "I would like my child to learn how to
recognize the household objects", "I would like him/her to
learn the rules of a game", "my son expressed the desire to go
by himself to the local toy store to buy toys on his own".
going in detail into the definition of individual needs, all the above needs can
be organized in three major domains:
1/ Helping the person with basic functional skills
Development of elementary or higher academic skills.
Development of social skills, for work or for leisure.
broad categorisation of the needs corresponds to the classification of the World
Health Organisation (W.H.O.) that was introduced in 1980 (Wood 1980) which
distinguishes three levels:
1/ IMPAIRMENT: a functional trouble in a body part or system function
2/ DISABILITY: the difficulty in achieving basic performance resulting
from an impairment
3/ HANDICAP: The difficulty in achieving social activity
resulting from the disability
to respond to those needs we will try to segment the approach of the problems in
a corresponding frame(Tréhin 1988):
Devising specific exercices to try to work on brain plasticity
appropriate methods to teach basic academic skills
Developping activities fostering social skills acquisition
! DISABILITY !
! MAINSTREAMING ! ENVIROMNMENT
! AND PERSON
! PREPARATION !
! BASIC BRAIN
! ADAPTED !
TEACHING SOCIAL !
! SKILLS FOR
! EDUCATION, BASIC !
MAXIMUM LEVEL OF !
! KNOWLEDGE ACQUIS. !
not really specific to autism, even though identifying the needs may require
some pretty good knowledge of the person as well as what autism is, I mean what
we do know so far about the specific learning difficulties linked to autism...
ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING CAPABILITIES
specific aspects of autistic people is the fact that not only are there inter
individual differences but for a same person there can be considerable
differences in the various domains of development: capabilities can be close to
or at chronological age level in some areas and quite bellow age level in other
entails the second step which is an IN DEPTH ASSESSMENT OF THE CAPABILITIES of
that autistic person in all the domains of motor development, of cognitive
development as well as in the social adaptation areas (Schopler 1988). This will
tell us at what level, in each developmental domain, we can start to propose
teaching activities that will lead us in the direction of the goal that we
established in step one.
ESTABLISH A TEACHING STRATEGY
Three is to ESTABLISH AN APPROPRIATE TEACHING STRATEGY. For that we will use a
"palette" of educational activities that are as much as possible
adapted to the present level of the autistic person and his/her preferences.
There may be the place to establish sub goals that may be necessary to achieve
the final goal.
implementation of exercises can be based upon some known, tested education
strategies for autistic children (Schopler, trad Française 1988/1993). Other
exercices can be adapted to computer assisted education and used for people with
autism (Feuerstein 1994)
can often be used for incidental learning. While ordinary games have been rather
well scaled for developmental age, this is a little more difficult with computer
games. This remains one of the main obstacles to the use of computers games with
people with autism.
REMEMBER THAT THE PERSON IS AUTISTIC
important to have a thorough understanding of autism in general (Gilberg,
Peeters 1995, Jordan 1997). If it is true that there are enormous inter personal
differences between autistic persons, there are nevertheless many striking
common elements shared by many of them, albeit each with quite different levels
of intensity. In most cases, visual educational material and strategies will be
more efficient (Hodgdon 1996).
in the early phases of learning, use one sensory modality at a time, don't
overload the main topic being learned by too much context, given the problems
encoutered by people with autism at the sensory level (Grandin 1991), this may
come at a later time when the generalization of knowledge will be mature.
Context can be reintroduced progressively as the person acquires more advanced
SPECIFIC QUALITIES OF COMPUTER WITH AUTISTIC PEOPLE
we have approached the needs and the emerging capabilities as they should be, it
is about time that we come to the use of computers with autistic children or
the many tools that could be used to help us achieve the goals we have setup
according to the level of the person and given the type of activities that would
benefit the person, the computer technology can indeed bring some very specific
exercises that can really be well suited for autistic people specific learning
computer does not react like a person : I believe that the difficulties of the
autistic child with persons and animals lies in their unpredictable behavior. A
computer has very consistent reactions to the same actions.
computer can be programmed to create very stable pictures of simple objects and
respond consistently to the child interactions. Once the basic concept acquired,
the next step could be to try
building a more complex categorization of objects by introducing small
variations on the objects images, progressively adding more and more complex
usage of a speech synthesizer could allow a similar strategy for the acquisition
of verbal language. The words for the same simple objects would be pronounced by
the synthesizer in a very stable auditory stimulus in simultaneity with the
picture. Once the acquisition of a concept is definitive, variations in the
voice can be introduced in the pitch, in the speed, in the intensity, in the
parameters that differentiate speakers voices. Here too add contextual sounds
multiple input/output devices that can be used will enable interactions adapted
to the progress of the child. Multimedia programs would be the almost perfect
tool as they allow starting with real pictures of familiar objects, people,
situations, etc... and progressively introduce variations around them, later
introduce drawings, and more and more symbolic representations. Multimedia would
allow the introduction of sound contexts to a picture and vice versa. This can
be extremely useful when teaching social skills since it permits the progressive
introduction of more and more complex social situations.
computer has one very specific quality that is not often mentioned: the computer
is a means of communication.
For some of the children who will not develop a spoken language, this
possibility will constitute a realistic alternative. One can think of portable
devices, but also about the emerging home computer networks, enabling a very
these positive aspects of computer use with autistic people only take their full
power when integrated in a comprehensive strategy that will call upon many other
teaching tools other than computers, and in particular moving from the computer
environment to the real world...
stressed here the Learning situations since it is the one most often encountered
by parents. With people with autism, even games have to be learned (Hogan
1997)... Leisure use of computers can be interesting too. But here too, we must
think first about the autistic person, her needs, her capabilities and see that
the computer program corresponds to
them. As often mentioned, there are risks too with some computer based
activities. People with autism may get so immersed in the interactions with a
computer that they will fail to become more socialized. The support here will
consist in trying to diversify the activities in order to offer a choice to the
the preferences for repetitive patterns, may happen. Providing that they don't
occupy all the time, these can be considered as autistic personality preferences
and aren't different from other repetitive activities. Some place and some time
should be reserved for those activities too, it is not because we don't
understand them that we should try to eliminate them... Don't we all have
preferences that a number of people would not understand? These we keep to
ourselves, and in general we try to reserve a time and a space for enjoying them.
Autistic people should be taught to do the same with their favorite activities.
That goes also for a computer program preference...
also necessary to establish a link between the activities on the computer and
those in real life. For example to learn the rules of a game in a simulated
environment in order to be ready later on when getting in a real social
environment. This is important for people with autism as in most cases they have
severe difficulties with grasping the rules by simple observation. Learning in
the safe context of a computer game avoid the failure of learning in social
context at first and hence avoids rejection by the social group.
can be fun too with all forms of artistic expression. Drawing, music, even
writing stories, if necessary through using pictures. This expression can really
enhance the potential for sharing experiences, it allows one to create a
document recounting an experience such as a trip to the sea, or a visit in a
zoo, even if one doesn't know how to read and write. It is now easy to include
sounds, images and even videos clips in a multimedia document that can then be
shared with friends or more openly on a web site(Noyes 2002).
people with more limited skills, there is still a possibility for creativity by
using combinations of ready made "building blocks", writing a story in
pictures, drawing with ready made elements, mixing pieces of music, etc...
have one additional fantastic characteristic not often mentioned: they let you
erase mistakes... Most programs have an "UNDO" feature which enables
you to cancel the very last action that you did with your computer and just have
to remake the last bit you did wrong. In the case of autism, where some fine
motor skills can be subject to "parasite movements" this is a
tremendous capability. This goes for writing texts, drawing pictures or even
regardless of all these possibilities, remember that computers must remain a
tool for developing real life activities and that they must be combined with
many other tools to become really efficient.
Feuerstein, Y. Rand, J.E. Rynders, "Dont accept me as I am, Helping,'Retarded' people to excell",
Plenum Publishing Corporation, NY
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Strategies for Improving Communication, Practical Supports for school and Home",
Quirk Roberts Publishing, 1996
Hogan, "Pensée non verbale,
communication, imitation et compétences de jeu : une perspective développementale",
TEACCH Program Home Page, 1997, Traduction Evelyne ARTI-VARTAYAN, avec
l'autorisation de l’auteur. E.D.I. Formation 1998 Titre original : "Nonverbal Thinking,
Communication, Imitation, and PlaySkills From a Developmental Perspective"
Education of Children and young people with autism ", Guides
for Special Needs Education number 10, UNESCO, Paris 1997
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changed his family’s life”, World Autism Orgnisation Congres, Melbourne Nov.
Schopler, G. Mesibov,
"Diagnostic and assessment in Autism", Plenum press 1988
E. Schopler, M. Lansing, M. Reichler, L. Marcus, "Stratégies éducatives de l'autisme", Traduction C. Milcent, Masson 1988 (4ème tirage 1995)
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Incapacité, Handicap et Education assistée
par Ordinateur" Colloque De
Saunier, 17 Octobre 1987, UNAPEI
the consequences of disease: The International Classification of Impairements,
Disabilities and Handicap", W.H.O. chronicle 1980, (World Health
Note that there is a new classification used now by the World Health
Organisation. However, I think that this one gives a clear vision of the
relationship between the process leading to a handicap.
I am not speaking here of a
technique called "Facilitated Communication". This technique has
been abundantly publicized causing a lot of controversy among parents of
autistic people, professionals working with autistic people and often
between the two groups.