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Computer programs and apps for children with autism

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Advances in technology have provided educators with an abundance of new tools to use in instruction. This is no exception for teachers educating those on the autism spectrum. 

From SMART Boards to iPads to the common computer, there are a number of software programs, websites and applications that support the needs of learners with autism.

One particular software program has caught the attention of professionals educating those in the autism community. Vizzle is an innovative, research-based program aimed at supporting the academic, social, and communication needs of learners with autism, as well as supporting the parents and educators of those children.

"This program is about easy sharing and easy data collection," said Pam Homsher, director of communications for Vizzle and parent of a child on the autism spectrum. Teachers and parents can save lessons and visual supports made through the program and access ready-made materials as well. This cuts down tremendously on preparation time.

Homsher pointed out that for children with autism there is often too much extraneous information to process when presented with a lesson from a teacher. Students are able to focus closely on the skill at hand when learning with Vizzle.

Homsher credited the autism educators who collaborate on this project and the availability of customer support with Vizzle's success. Users are able to access updates online, use how-to videos that are embedded in the program, and engage in Vizzle University, online classes that count towards teachers' professional development hours.

Another effective tool in teaching children with autism is video modeling. Model Me Kids is a company that created videos for modeling social skills in a variety of everyday scenarios. 

"The videos are a powerful as well as effective tool for teaching social skills because they teach to the visual strengths of children with autism," said Susan Klein, the founder and president of Model Me Kids.

The videos break down social skills into small steps, much like the approach in applied behavior analysis, a popular behavioral intervention used in instructing children with autism. The videos freeze at important points and use narration and graphics to highlight the intricacies of social interaction, often missed in live teaching. Klein cited the importance of the videos using peers to model the social situations in lieu of adults, who often teach social skills in the classroom.

Klein shared that new interactive software will be available in about a month, in which students can view a conversation modeled by peers then use a webcam to record themselves conversing with an actor. The learner can also play back his recorded video conversation to review the skill. Model Me Kids also has a free app, Model Me Going Places, based on its videos.

Jacob's Lessons is a popular website established by a father looking to create a fun and interactive program for his young child. His wife, a behavior analyst, found that these activities benefited students with autism with whom she had worked. The site notes that the activities on Jacob's Lessons are meant to be supervised by an adult to support the learner's acquisition of skills. Skills such as gender identification, identifying function of objects, and receptive object identification are all targeted and reinforced through the narrator's verbal praise. Visual cues are used to prompt the learner if he chooses the incorrect answer.

The use of the iPad in classrooms for learners with autism has brought a monumental change in instruction, behavior management, and communication. There is an entire category on the education apps page devoted to special education.

Simple apps, like timers and chore charts, help students with disabilities organize their time and increase productivity. Many parents and teachers use timers with children with autism to signify the end of an activity and assist with a smooth transition to a new task.

Popular apps such as Proloquo2Go, which assists with communication for non-verbal learners, and Dragon Dictation, which uses speech-to-text technology, have changed the way children with autism participate in the classroom. Both apps have facilitated easier interaction between children and their teachers and parents.

Apps have proven very successful in supporting learners with autism and their daily living skills. iDress for Weather is an app that shows the temperature and weather for the local area and provides options for appropriate clothing selections. The user can add personalized photos of their own clothing.

Utilizing technology in lessons has become commonplace practice in schools. Concerns over technology replacing live teaching, however, are unfounded as these websites and software programs are meant to be used as one piece of the puzzle in educating people with autism.

As with any Internet exposure, it's best for teachers and parents to supervise students' activity and receive training on programs where appropriate. Technology provides numerous opportunities for learning for children with autism and has become an indispensable component in educating these learners.

"Special education is ahead of general education in regards to differentiation but farther behind in technology,"  Homsher said. It seems the playing fields are finally breaking even.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jennifer is an educational consultant who works with families and educators to establish healthy and productive routines in the home and school. Adapting behavior management techniques she implemented for years as a special educator, she helps parents and teachers adopt these tools to fit their unique needs and priorities. Jennifer also speaks to parent and education groups on current topics in education and children's health. Visit www.jennifercerbasi.com