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July 1st, 2008

Simons Foundation hosts article about digital tools and children with autism

Last week, the Simons Foundation website published an article about using digital tools to help children and teens with autism. The article features a plethora of examples of current high tech products and their positive effect within the autism community. Some of the products mentioned in the article, such as TeachTown: Basics or the Behavioral Image (BI) Capture system, were specifically designed to be used with the special needs community. The article also reports that some autistic teens are benefiting from products not specifically designed for the special needs market, such as the SymTrend, a PDA designed to help teens track their school performance, or SecondLife, a web-based virtual reality game.

The whole article can be found here.

June 30th, 2008

Discrete Trial Training - New Findings

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Chris Whalen and Dr. Shannon Cernich attended the Applied Behavior Analysis International conference in Chicago.  There were many exciting presentations and new developments in the field of ABA related to autism.

Of particular interest was a poster presentation entitled “An Analysis of Instructor Errors in Discrete-Trial Teaching of Children with Autism” by Daniel Mruzek, Tristram Smith, and colleagues at the University of Rochester.  They found that the largest proportion of instructor errors when delivering discrete trial training (DTT) occurred when delivering reinforcement.

These errors were of two types:  The instructor reinforced an incorrect child response or the instructor failed to reinforce a correct child response.  For example, instructor says “Show me the big one.”   Child points at small item but instructor thinks the child pointed at big item and says, Great job!”  Or the child points at the big item but the instructor is looking at her data sheet and thinks the child did not respond and says, “Try again.”  As reinforcement (often colloquially known as reward) is what increases the rate of a response, DTT can result in the wrong responses being increased, even with a trained instructor.

This is not to suggest that DTT is a flawed methodology.  All training methods as well as life often result in the wrong responses being reinforced.  Imagine the following scenario:  You meet someone new named Shelly; you mishear her name and call her Sally.  She responds when you call her Sally and does not correct you.  Your behavior of calling her by the wrong name is reinforced.

So the point is not to end your child’s DTT program in place of some other methodology, but to make sure it is being properly supervised.  Trained, good ABA therapists will regularly make the errors describe above (they’re only human), but a good supervisor will detect and correct these errors while supervising your child’s session.

More highlights from the ABA conference will follow in future blogs, but in conclusion, Dr. Chris and Dr. Shannon gave presentations at the conference on the use of TeachTown: Basics, a computer-assisted program that delivers concepts during the computer sessions in a DTT format.  Although computerized instruction is meant to supplement human instruction, not replace it, we are proud to state that TeachTown: Basics delivers errorless reinforcement.  There are some things that computers can do better than people.  If only your computer would help you the next time your child tantrums!

June 10th, 2008

TeachTown in Parents Magazine

Parents Magazine
On page 40 of its June issue (on stands now), Parents Magazine discusses computer programs designed as a learning tool for children with autism. In the article is a quote from Carl G. Arinoldo, Ph. D., (a psychologist who works with autistic children) concerning the benefits of computer programs for children with autism. One of the programs specifically mentioned is TeachTown. “This was a major breakthrough,” says Sam Butler, a parent of an autistic child that uses TeachTown: Basics. Buy your copy of Parents Magazine today!

April 2nd, 2008

When is my child ready to start using the computer?

 There is no specific age that a child should start using the computer, but most people would agree that the child should be at least 2 years old. At this age, many children may be ready, but some will not, even at 3 or 4 years old. By the age of 5 years, most children are probably ready to start using the computer in one way or another. There is little research on when a child should begin using the computer, but there are a few signs that your child might be ready:

  1. Your child is at least 2 years old
  2. Your child is interested in visual stimuli such as the computer or television
  3. Your child attends to visual stimuli for at least 5 minutes (with or without your help)
  4. Your child is able to reach for items or point to desired items (so that they can touch the computer monitor or point to items on the screen) (not necessary for your child to use a computer mouse at first) (this one is not totally necessary as there are accommodations that can be made even for those children who cannot point to the screen)
  5. Your child can attend to and follow brief, verbal instructions (e.g. “sit down”) (for this one, it is worth trying the computer briefly to see what happens, for some children, they respond better to the computer than to verbal instructions).

How can I get a child started using the computer?

The best way to get a child started on the computer is to introduce it gradually with little demand on the child. The focus at first should be on showing the child that the computer is fun!

  1. Pick a stimulating program that your child is likely to love (this does NOT have to be educational – just fun for your child!) and have your child sit with you while you navigate through the program. If your child wants to grab the mouse or touch the monitor, let him, but do not give your child any instructions or place any demands on him or her.
  2. Once your child begins to show interest (which could be the very first time!), start placing your child’s hand on the mouse occasionally and physically prompt them to move it around and click. If you have a touch screen monitor, you can have your child start touching the screen to see what will happen. For this step, you should again choose a program that is reinforcing for your child, not necessarily a learning program.
  3. Now you can introduce a simple learning program (you will want to start with content that is relatively easy, but not boring, for the child). Begin with very short sessions such as 5 minutes and do several times throughout the day (2-3 times). Sit behind your child and provide extra reinforcement (e.g. praise, food, touch) to keep your child engaged. You may want to set a timer so the child knows how long they are expected to sit at the computer.
  4. Increase the difficulty of the learning program and increase the time gradually that the child sits at the computer (no more than 20 minutes for a young child, up to an hour for an older child).
  5. As your child gets more independent on the computer, you can fade your presence but it is recommended that you sit with your child for some of the computer sessions to work on expressive language and social interaction.
  6. To make sure it is working, you should collect data on the skills you are trying to improve.

What should I look for in purchasing software for my child?

  1. If only looking to entertain your child, not teach, pretty much anything will work – these kinds of programs are good rewards for your child to earn after using a learning program.
  2. For teaching, look for programs that are specifically designed for your child’s needs. For instance, if you have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you may want to purchase a program that is designed specifically for this population. Also, be sure to look at the ages the program is designed to teach. If your child is older, you will want to choose a program with age ranges that match your child’s developmental level.
  3. Look for programs that are based on science. Many programs claim to do this, so look at what “science” they are referring to.
  4. Look for companies that have done and continue to do research on their products! This one is extremely important, claiming something is “evidence-based” or “effective” without any research is a false claim. At minimum, the companies should provide a scientific framework that their products are based on.
  5. Identify programs that are visually interesting and have fun sounds – you will want your child to enjoy what they are doing! Most companies provide free demos of their products so that you can check out what the program looks and sounds like. Higher quality products are more engaging for most children.
  6. Programs that claim to be effective should provide a data collection system in the software. Having frequent progress reports on how your child is doing will help you decide if the program is working or not.
  7. One of the biggest issues with computer instruction is whether or not skills will generalize to off-computer activities. Programs that provide generalization solutions in the software and give suggestions for off-computer activities are ideal.
  8. Last, but not least, try to identify programs that will grow with the child so that you are not replacing software every month or so (this gets costly, results in loss of data tracking, and can be frustrating for your child).

Written by:

Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA

President and Chief Science Officer

TeachTown, Inc.

www.teachtown.com

April 1st, 2008

Autism and Online Role Playing Games

Games such as Second Life may provide a great opportunity for opening social doors for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  This virtual world allows users to create characters and interact socially with others in an online world.  In a recent article, CNN reports on how this can be beneficial.  Created by an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, Naughty Auties is a world where people with ASD can interact with one another in a more relaxed, less socially intimidating environment.  This sounds like a great solution for teaching social interaction and working on social skills.

This kind of solution for helping teens and adults with ASD may end up causing more harm than good.  In worlds such as Second Life, there are an unfortunate group of people called “griefers” whose sole purpose is to cause harm to others.  These people literally seek out vulnerable people in these online worlds and deliberately disrupt the world and cause harm, just because they can.  In worlds such as Second Life, there is no supervision, there are no limits, and anyone can get in and do whatever they want and say whatever they want.  This opens the doors for griefers and others will the wrong intentions.  For the ASD community, they are especially vulnerable due to their difficulties with understanding subtle social cues and often, language difficulties.

Although I support the idea of providing a virtual world for working on social skills and understanding, I am nervous about an open-ended world where people with disabilities are completely exposed and open to griefers.  Instead, I would like to see something similar that is not open to anyone wanting to join, and that operates in a more controlled space perhaps with computer players (like in the SIMS) or with invite-only people that have been screened.  The other issue to consider is how effective this kind of environment is for increasing skills, with no data collection or research on the effectiveness of doing this for someone with ASD, I would hesitate.  Research is clearly needed on this kind of program, particularly if it is described as an intervention or skill-building program.
In general, I think the idea is great, but people should be aware of the potential risks before jumping into a world with so many risks.

About Dr. Chris

Chris is a licensed psychologist and board certified behavior analyst specializing in autism and related disorders. She received her PhD at U.C. San Diego and did her post-doctoral fellowship at U.C.L.A. Chris is a Founder and Chief Science Officer at TeachTown.

Read more about Chris and our other authors.

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