How Adults With Autism Utilize Their Computers
Reprinted from the ADVOCATE Newsletter of the Autism Society of America, Inc. (Nov-Dec 1997)
Ask most adults these days, and they will tell you that their computer is an essential part of their life. I certainly include myself in that category. These individuals report that they use the computer for many different reasons. Common leisure functions include writing letters, keeping monetary records, playing games, making greeting cards, and meeting new people and learning new information via the Internet. Work functions are too numerous to name. Being immersed in the world of autism as I am, I became curious as to how adults with autism or Aspergers Syndrome (AS) utilize the computer.
Technology: Becoming An Informed Consumer
Today, a nonverbal child speaks with the help of an electronic communication aid. A student with learning disabilities masters math facts using a computer game. A child with vision problems can benefit from an inexpensive device that enlarges printed words on the computer screen. And for more severe vision problems, there are speech synthesizers that can be used with computers to convert typewritten words or text into an electronic voice.
For the child who has a physical disability, there are special devices that will allow him or her to input information into the computer without using the conventional keyboard. This can be done through the use of a single switch or some type of voice recognition system. There are other alternative input devices that can be used simply by touching the computer screen or touching points on a touch-sensitive tablet that correspond to the points on the computer screen.
Computer and other technologies have expanded and enriched lives and given many children with disabilities options not imagined a decade ago. As there is a wide array of assistive technology, so too are there many decisions, choices and options for families and professionals. Making informed decisions about technology is a challenge that many consumers will encounter in coming years. Resources are available to assist consumers such as: current periodicals; disability, parent, and professional organizations; national technology centers; and private companies. Walking the assistive technology maze can be made less complex and confusing by understanding the implications of technology in the lives of children and youth with disabilities, and by knowing where to go for help.
Then and Now
In the late 1800s, the population of the U.S. was growing rapidly. Census information, gathered by hand, resulted in long delays and inaccuracy in the information reported about the nation's population. In fact, the 1880 census took eight years to count. Estimates at that time indicated that if the census process continued in the same manner, the 1890 census would take twelve years to complete and the 1930 census would be available in 1985.
Help arrived in the form of the 1890 Census Machine developed by John Shaw Billings and Herman Hollerith. The 1890 census took three years to complete and computerization was underway. Hollerith turned to big business to market the invention, now called the Tabulating Machine. He joined a company that eventually called itself International Business Machines (IBM). IBM joined with Harvard in 1938 to create the first electronic computer, the Mark I. The Mark I required 46,000 vacuum tubes to perform its operations.
The ENIAC computer, completed in 1947, weighed 30 tons, stood nine feet tall, and took up 1,500 square feet. In 1951 the UNIVAC computer was completed. Weighing in at a mere 3 tons and occupying only 575 square feet, UNIVAC was the first computer to handle numbers and words. Commercially produced computers continued to evolve, with more power packed into less space at a lower price.
In 1973, the first computer chip, the 8080, was manufactured by Intel. Less than a square inch in area and thin as cardboard, this chip can perform a million calculations per second (like the ENIAC) but only costs about $4 to purchase. These chips are inexpensive because their main ingredient is silicon, which is more common than sand, and they are produced in enormous quantities (Budoff, Thormann, and Gras, 1985).
Computers were the beginning of the new information technology. Information (facts, knowledge, data, and news) technology (materials, tools, systems and techniques) is the key to economic growth. It is likely to bring about substantial changes in society and may change lives -- for better or worse -- in a very short time. It will improve the quality of life for many people by making information more accessible and providing more information at a low cost which will increase opportunities for all. The greatest gain will be to the educationally disadvantaged, among them, students with disabilities (Hawkridge, Vincent, and Hales, 1985).
The interest in using computer technology with people with disabilities began in October 1981 with the Johns Hopkins First National Search for Applications of Personal Computing to Aid the Handicapped. In November 1980, the Applied Physics Laboratory at The Johns Hopkins University began a national search for applications of personal computing to aid the handicapped. Enthusiastic responses from professionals, amateurs, and students resulted in introductory workshops and regional fairs, and culminated in an exhibit of the top national entries at the National Academy of Sciences, an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., and a two-day workshop on computing for the handicapped at Johns Hopkins in October 1981.
In March 1983, The Council for Exceptional Children held its First National Conference on the Use of Microcomputers in Education. This conference reflected the need for basic workshops on microcomputer use and for information on practical applications of computers in special education. In 1983 CEC/ERIC published: Microcomputers in Special Education by Florence M. Tabor; The Exceptional Parent magazine published its first annual technology issue; and the IEEE held its first Computer Society Workshop on Computers in the Education and Employment of the Handicapped.
1984 saw the first U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) document published by COSMOS Corporation: Microcomputer Implementation in Schools by Robert K. Yin and J. Lunne White. The document described and analyzed the use of microcomputers in the schools and district offices of 12 school districts. In September, 1984, Closing The Gap held its first conference on Computer Technology for the Handicapped. A 1985 OSEP publication, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Computer Simulation: Future Applications in Special Education, by Gwendolyn B. Moore, Robert K. Yin, and Elizabeth A. Lahm, identified ways in which technologies might be used to help special education students in the future.
The vehicle for introducing technological devices for educational use was put into place in 1975 with the passage of the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), P.L.94-142. Increased federal interest was demonstrated with the passage of the Amendments to the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1986, P.L. 99-457. These amendments created a new Part G designed to promote the use of new technology, media, and materials in the education of students with disabilities. Discretionary grants under this new authority were targeted to:
More recently, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, P.L. 100-407, was signed into law. The primary purpose of the act is to assist states in developing and implementing statewide programs of technology-related assistance for meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities. The program will enable individuals with disabilities to acquire assistive technology devices and services. Over a three year period, all states will have the opportunity to get federal assistance for developing and establishing their statewide program.
Assistive devices are not a new area of interest created by the new law. As shown above, interest in the new higher technologies began shortly after the silicon chip invention. Prior to that, low technology assistive devices were being developed and used for centuries. Consequently, definitions of what an assistive device is are numerous, and are often based on the perspective of a specific agency or disability group.
The wide variety of assistive devices, and their applications to children and youth with disabilities, is currently receiving a great deal of attention from many disability-related fields. This flurry of activity stems from the potential that new and emerging technologies hold for individuals with disabilities to lead full and independent lives. The cases below provide only a few examples of the versatility and application of technology and their benefits.
Case 1: A high school student with a visual impairment in a Current Events class has an assignment to follow a recent major event, present available facts about it, write a report, and complete a presentation about the event to his classmates. A major source of information for his sighted classmates is the newspaper, but unless someone reads it to him, he cannot use that source. The radio is an available option, but typically radio news coverage contains too little detail. With the available computer technologies, though, he can receive the newspaper on a computer disk and, using his personal computer equipped with synthesized speech, he can auditorily scan the newspaper, find relevant articles, and have the computer read them to him. Using the same computer, he can begin to write his paper, print it out in braille so he can check it and change it if necessary, and then print it in standard text to hand into his teacher.
Case 2: An adolescent with quadraparalysis shows all the signs of becoming a teenager. She wants control of her own life: to decide which radio station to listen to, to decide when to turn the reading light off at night, to call her friends and have a private conversation, and to stay home alone when her parents go out. Without assistive devices she would be unable to be an independent teenager, but with a single switch connected to an environmental control unit and placed on her head, she can control her personal radio, turn the lights on and off, access the telephone for calling friends, and call for emergency help when her parents are out.
Case 3: A toddler with severe disabilities attends a special education preschool program. The teachers are unable to determine the child's cognitive abilities because the child has no verbal skills and very few motor skills. In the past, teachers had few ideas for appropriate educational programs for this type of child. As a result of available technologies, the child's educational program includes motor training, language and communication training, and teachers can more easily see the child's potential and can build on it. Now the teachers are working on training him to use a consistent motor response using switches and battery-operated toys. The child is learning to reach and touch a switch which turns on a battery-operated teddy bear. Other times the child has two or three switches to choose from and must decide which toy is preferable. The language therapist is using the same switches to teach the child to make consistent "yes" and "no" responses for communication.
Computers for Home Use
Many of the computers purchased each year are bought for use in the home. Well over 50% of home computer owners report that the major reason for buying a computer is for educational applications. Exactly how computers are used depends on the software selected. Depending on the design and content, software can present new skills or concepts, reinforce previously learned skills, or require the learner to apply skills to a task or problem. Educational software generally falls into four categories: drill and practice, tutorial, simulations, and games. Tool software such as word processing are another option. Each type of software can be used for instruction at home.
Drill and Practice. These programs provide opportunities for the child to practice previously learned skills. The content of the drill and practice program is usually structured, focusing on a specific sequence or kind of skill-building. For many students with disabilities, drill and practice activities are very important for mastering skills, and using this kind of software at home can reinforce learning that takes place at school.
Tutorials. These programs introduce new skills or concepts. It is assumed that the learner has not been introduced to the material presented in the software. The child may have learned related skills, but the content of the software is essentially new. Because the content is new, the learner will need guidance and supervision which aids understanding and teaches correct use from the beginning.
Simulations. Simulations are a type of problem-solving software. The learner applies skills and information that they have mastered. Simulations place learners in real life situations. The learner applies rules, uses facts, and draws conclusions to solve a problem. In addition to academic skills, simulations require good coordination and keyboarding ability. The necessary academic and physical skills should be assessed when considering this type of program for a child with a disability.
Games. Computer-based games can be either drill and practice or problem-solving activities. Arcade-style games are usually drill and practice programs. The learner practices skills by competing with the program in which facts or problems are presented. The learner is timed and gets points for giving the correct answer within the time limit.
Tool Software. This software helps the user find, organize, and reorganize information. Word processing programs, database management systems, and music or graphics editors are all examples of tool software. No content is specified with tool software. Instead, the program provides a framework for writing, creating files, or drawing. To use a word processing program or a spreadsheet, the learner must become familiar with its features. Tool programs are more versatile for home use than drill and practice or tutorial programs and family members can use them for different purposes.
Many possibilities exist for computer learning at home. Yet, because of differences in age, skills, and interests, few products will appeal to all members of the family. Knowing how your child learns and thinks about his or her strengths or weaknesses is important for it can affect learning.
Selecting Assistive Technology Equipment: Becoming Informed
In addition to standard considerations such as cost, available software, expandability, ease of use, and available peripherals, it is also important to consider how adaptable the hardware is. For students with special needs, adaptability in most types of materials is necessary. For example, students with physical disabilities might need to use switches which are operated by a head movement, a head wand, a foot switch, an eye blink, or a sip and puff method. Students with a visual impairment may need a speech synthesizer. For students with a moderate disability, a combination of speech synthesis and alternative inputs may be necessary. For students with behavioral or attention disabilities, timing is important. In addition, a special feature that is essential to these students is just how fast the computer can load programs from the disk.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of information that parents and professionals can access, thus allowing them to make informed choices about the products they purchase and the services they select.
1. Where to Begin. If you are interested in using computers or assistive technology with your child but do not know where to being, start by reading general information on the subject. There are books available as well as publications, some of which are specific to special needs.
2. School and Community Services. Print information alone may not be enough to help you with your technology decisions. You may need to contact agencies and organizations that provide special services. To do this, first become aware of resources that exist in your community. Local resources can supply personalized assistance to fit technology to your child.
Perhaps the most important community resource is the school. Your child's teacher can often help you assess the potential of using technology at home given your child's needs. The teacher may also be able to guide you in selecting appropriate software for your child. Some districts allow parents to borrow computer equipment for home use.
Another local resource is a computer users' group. User groups can provide valuable information about the use of software and hardware. Technical questions can be answered by members who are experienced with both. Check with your local computer dealer or telephone directory to find a user group in your area. Computer manufacturers may also know of a local user group.
3. Specific Information. If you are looking for information about using technology with a child with a specific disability, try contacting the local chapter of the disability organization serving that population. For example, if your child has a learning disability, contact the local Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDAA).
Given the number and different types of computers that are available today, it is almost impossible to do a comparison. Generally, though, one or two factors tend to influence your decision to purchase particular equipment. These factors might include specific software compatibility, cost, or compatibility with other computers in the school.
Some questions to ask when considering a computer system are:
While you may not be able to afford all the options you want initially, think of the future. You will want a computer that can be useful in a number of situations and can be adapted to suit different needs.
4. Hardware. Hardware information may be harder to find locally. Computer dealers that sell computer systems can usually be found in most cities. Companies that sell assistive or adaptive equipment may need to be contacted directly.
5. Software. Your local public library can be a gold mine for information on computer software. Some libraries set up mini computer labs for the public use.
Another source for software information is your local computer store. National chains such as B. Dalton and Egghead carry a good selection of instructional software for all ages. Some software companies cater to the home market. Scholastic and Broderbund issue home market catalogs so you can shop by mail.
Some parents may be able to contact special software preview centers, operated by school districts or universities. Since most of these preview centers cater to teachers, call first to make sure parents are welcome.
6. Assistive Technology. If you don't know what assistive equipment is needed, local hospitals and community rehabilitation or vocational centers may be active in designing and fitting assistive devices to complement your child's capabilities. Some states have established centers to provide information about particular devices.
7. Funding. Finding funding for technology devices requires an individualized approach. To begin your search, check out resources that are available to you locally, such as the Lions or Kiwanis Clubs, and religious organizations.
Nationally, the Easter Seal Society in connection with IBM has an assistance project that allows eligible persons with disabilities to purchase discounted computer systems. Additional funding sources may soon emerge with new federal legislation and more national interest in technology by insurance companies.
To really make technology work for you and your child, it is important to become an informed consumer. Use the abundant resources available; read about technology, talk to others who use it, and try out various technology options before you buy.