Assistive Technology Benefits Autistic Children

By John M. Williams

I start this column by stating that out of the more than 100 one-on-one interviews that I have done as a journalist the toughest interview was with an 11-year-old autistic boy. He would not respond to my questions until I condensed my questions to four words and he heard my tape recorder ask the questions. His answers were then concise and clear.

Throughout my 31 years in the disability field, I have talked with people of all ages with autism. When I have used text-to-voice technology in communicating to them, I have been successful. I did not start out knowing that autistic children respond to artificial voice commands. About 20 years ago, I watched two autistic boys, about 10, play Pac Man. They responded well to the digitized voice. I wrote notes about the experience. I wrote an article about the experience.
For almost a year, I have received more than100 e-mails from parents of children with autism and teachers teaching children with autism. Most are looking for technology that can be used to educate children with autism with the ultimate goal being, “creating the opportunity to give my son Terry a future,” said Mary Kelly, Chicago, IL. Terry, 7, was diagnosed with autism when he was three-years-old.

For Kelly, giving her son a future is her life’s mission. She has been searching for a year for technology that can make a difference in Terry’s life. Using the Internet, she has found some companies that manufacture technology specifically developed to benefit autistic individuals. In her search she discovered Accelerations Educational Software (

Houston, TX’s Jim Ellison has a similar story. His nine-year-old son Michael was diagnosed as being autistic three years ago. Other disabling conditions prevented a diagnosis of autism until Michael was six-years-old. Michael is in the second grade. “Michael’s teachers need to know about the technology that can build a future for him,” Ellison says.

Michael’s teacher, Kathryn Hays says, “I need to know more about technology’s benefits to my students with autism.” She says she notices that Michael responds to voice instructions from a computer better than verbal commands from her.

Many teachers are confused by autism and have asked me, what is autism?

Autism is a brain development disorder that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior, all starting before a child is three-years-old. About 300,000 American children have been diagnosed as having autism, according to the first comprehensive national surveys of the developmental disorder. Autism (sometimes called “classical autism”) is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).
Autism is characterized by distinctive behaviors. Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, display problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and exhibit repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.
According to his mother and teacher, Terry exhibits nonverbal communication, repetitive behaviors (rocking in his seat) and is obsessive about his possessions.
Autism varies widely in its severity and symptoms and may go unrecognized, especially in mildly affected children or when more debilitating handicaps mask it. Scientists aren’t certain what causes autism, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment play a role.
There is no cure for autism. Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that target the core symptoms of autism: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and obsessive or repetitive routines and interests. Most professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.
For many children, autism symptoms improve with treatment and with age. Some children with autism grow up to lead normal or near-normal lives. Children, whose language skills regress early in life, usually before the age of 3, appear to be at risk of developing epilepsy or seizure-like brain activity. Michael has seizures. During adolescence, some children with autism may become depressed or experience behavioral problems.
Kelly, Ellison and the teachers of their children are looking at video modeling as a teaching tool. Video modeling is a form of observational learning in which desired behaviors are learned by watching a video demonstration and then imitating the behavior of the model. In video self-modeling (VSM), individuals observe themselves performing a behavior successfully on video, and then imitate the targeted behavior. Video modeling has been used to teach many skills, including social skills, communication, daily living, recreation, academic and athletics.

Accelerations Educational Software is one of the country’s leading developers of software \ for individuals with autism and other learning disabilities. The company incorporates behavioral methods that allow even very low functioning individuals to usually become independent learners. The company’s first product, the DT Trainer, was created by its founder Karl Smith for his autistic son.
“My son is an inspiration behind the development of our products,” says Smith.
AES’s the Activity Trainer is repeatedly mentioned by teachers as a program they use with results. The Activity Trainer is a software program that makes the research-based, effective Video Modeling teaching method practical for the classroom. The program enables teachers to use videos to teach any targeted activity or skill – from simple to complex – and includes a library of activities with options to customize, modify, and create new activities.

Video modeling can be a significant and important tool for improving educational services provided in public education for individuals with autism and individuals with other learning disabilities.

Video Modeling has been shown by 20 years of research to increase acquisition rates across a wide variety of skills for individuals with autism. However, video modeling is not common practice. Still, programs have been designed to solve this problem by making video modeling practical for teaching.

Teachers using video modeling video have told me when a student is not learning a skill quickly with other teaching methods, video modeling should be tried.

“I use video modeling for writing activities, showing where body parts are located, folding laundry practicing fine motor skills, folding paper, pouring liquids into cups, coloring,” says Lori Edwards, teacher, Still Elementary School in Cobb County, Georgia.
Another product developed by the company is the DT Trainer, a virtual tutor for autistic students.

The software motivates individuals to perform tasks which they may not want to learn or may find difficult to learn. There are hundreds of colorful, interesting, and fun reinforcers to pick from which engage even difficult to motivate individuals. The program breaks down learning into the appropriate steps for low functioning to high functioning students. It was for learners that have one or more of the following characteristics:
•developmentally between the ages 2-9 years (limitation of current content) •easily distracted or overloaded •not well self directed or motivated •have difficulty following directions •require moderate to substantial repetition •need maintenance of previously learned materials Using assistive technology, children can learn and function productively given the appropriate educational plan and technology,” says special education teacher Sharon Tate, San Diego, CA. Tate has been teaching autistic children for five years. Because she has seen video modeling used in a classroom with results, she is a supporter of video modeling and using text to speech technology in educating autistic pupils.
Tate has a five-year-old autistic daughter who was diagnosed a year ago as being mildly autistic. “Tammy responds or learns when she sees herself on screen,” says Tate, who “strongly believes” her daughter can have a future.
John Williams can be reached at

Substantial Growth in Number of Students with Autism Makes Huge Impact on Capacity of School Districts Nationwide
Number of U.S. children diagnosed with autism is increasing dramatically each year
DENVER — In the last 10 years, five times more children have been diagnosed with autism than in prior decades. This dramatic growth of students on the autism spectrum requiring treatment or special education services is greatly affecting school districts nationwide. The additional support needed is straining district budgets and resources – affecting the overall treatment and education of all students.

The growth in the number of students diagnosed with autism enrolled in school districts nationwide is radically increasing, which is greatly overwhelming district and school administrators. In 2000, there were 93,000 students with autism attending U.S. schools. Now, there are more than 300,000 cases, and many industry professionals expect this number to increase to 500,000 by 2010.
The cost of educating a developmentally delayed child, like those classified on the autism spectrum, continue to climb, and are generally considered to be four to 10 times that of other children (approximately $40,000 to $80,000 per year). In addition, districts are often confronted by well-prepared parents who are armed with resources that can force districts to provide “quality” education, which when placed offsite via a court order can cost more than $100,000 per child per year.
Few districts have the infrastructure to support the growth in students entering the school system who are diagnosed with autism. Most important, most general education teachers are insufficiently trained. And, intervention for children with autism is no longer a “one-size-fits-all” answer. This places a great deal of pressure on district leadership to design and implement differentiated instruction plans that meet the expectations of all parties.
“What our school districts need are ways to demystify autism for the general education teacher and frontline educator – those people that work directly with students with autism,” said Kevin Custer, CEO of Virtual Expert Clinics. “Teachers and district administrators need full-time access to evidence-based resources that can provide solutions to complex issues. They need an efficient way to monitor and track the progress of each student. And finally, they need a solution that can effectively communicate the status and progress of each student to all people involved – teachers, special education teams, parents, and administrators.”

Virtual Expert Clinics, Inc., encourages district administrators nationwide to reach out to local organizations, such as their regional chapter of the Autism Society of America or to national organizations, such as, to access up-to-date information about this critical issue. For more information about one solution that can help, visit

About Virtual Expert Clinics, Inc.

Virtual Expert Clinics, provider of a 21st century response to educating students with autism, works with school districts, early intervention providers, and governments to supplement quality programs. The company’s flagship product, AutismPro, allows administrators to build capacity and helps educators to improve outcomes. Virtual Expert Clinics has offices in Denver, Colo., and Fredericton, New Brunswick. For more information, visit
or phone 1-866-462-0991.
For more information, contact:–Ryan Reid, Virtual Expert Clinics, Inc., (506) 462-0991, ext. 227,

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