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News and Knowledge

Note to readers: In each issue of The OARacle, we provide a helpful resource on a topic of interest within the autism community. This month’s article focuses on computer-based therapy for autistic individuals. Special thanks to Speech-Language Pathologist Valerie Herskowitz, M.A. CCC-SLP, owner of Dimensions: Speech, Language and Learning Services, North in Plantation, Fla. and mother of an autistic child, for her contribution. (Ms. Herskowitz has offered her expertise solely to provide information germane to the autism community. Inclusion of this article is intended strictly for that purpose and not as an endorsement of her business.)

Educating students with autism often poses a serious challenge for parents and teachers. Due to the impact of autism on many aspects of behavior and development, a multidisciplinary approach to treatment is recommended. Among those disciplines is computer therapy.

While there is evidence that special-needs software programs help individuals improve in academics as well as social and communication skills, incorporating technology-based behavioral and instructional supports also has a positive effect on an individual’s social roles, self-image, self-esteem, and the ways in which others perceive him or her. Special-needs software programs can be used to supplement a child’s school curriculum assisted by a trained specialist or a parent, says Speech-Language Pathologist Valerie Herskowitz.

The Florida-based professional first began to integrate computer-based learning into the educational programs of her autistic students in 1994. According to Herskowitz, who is also the mother of an autistic 11-year old child named Blake, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Autistic children, she believes, often achieve success with computer-based learning. They are often good with computers because they have an easier time visually focusing on material illustrated on a computer monitor. In addition, many children like software programs because of their predictability, the repetition of the activity and the engaging animation.

There are an estimated 200 types of software programs for language training, speech, reading, attention and focusing and social skills available today. By consulting a trained professional or on their own, parents can develop an educational program tailored to their child’s needs and computer aptitude at home.

To start, Herskowitz recommends that parents determine which skills need the most work. “Parents should make a list of what areas they’re most concerned about,” she explained. When a child is newly diagnosed, she believes software is needed to work on language as well as attention and focusing, two skills that aid in other areas.

Next, parents should try to determine their child’s comfort and skill level with the computer, Herskowitz advises. Young children who have never used a computer should start with software programs that explain the relationship of cause and effect. Alternatively, children who possess the hand-eye coordination to put a puzzle together or play a video game can begin at a higher level and, she believes, will likely excel with computers.

Parents also need to take into consideration hardware and peripherals like a mouse, for example. Some children may have difficulty using a mouse. In this case, parents can purchase a touch screen or operate the mouse for the child.

Herskowitz says the most important factor is for parents to establish a firm schedule for the use of software programs. The programs should be used in a distraction-free environment with the help of a parent, sibling, caregiver or trained professional.

“The software has to be used as a tool, not as entertainment,” she believes. “Parents have to figure out the when, where and how of using it.”

When purchasing software, Herskowitz recommends that parents purchase programs from manufacturers who specialize in special-needs software and urges caution in buying off-the-shelf, commercial software programs that often provide little educational value for autistic children. Those programs, she added, often contain animation and music that can distract an autistic child. She also advises parents to consult a professional who specializes in a particular area of skill development on the most appropriate type of software to purchase for their children.

In addition, she offers some practical advice that will help parents decide if a particular software program will be effective and save a few bucks if it isn’t. She advises parents to initially buy a minimum of two to three programs and try them for at least two weeks. If a program is not working for the child, Herskowitz recommends getting advice from a professional, then using the program for an additional week. If the program doesn’t benefit the child, parents can return it within the normal 30-day return policy offered by many companies.

When a program works for a child, Herskowitz estimates that its effective use will last six to eight months on average or, in some cases, longer depending on the number of levels offered in the program.
Lastly, parents need to create a budget for the programs. The average cost of software is $100 and can range from $50 to $250. Herskowitz estimates that a child’s first set of programs will cost $100 to $150. To save money, she recommends buying programs packaged in a series that will instruct the child through a range of levels.

Overall, computer-based instruction utilizing software programs can enhance a child’s language, speech, reading abilities as well as their social and life skills. Using software programs will also help a child develop the abilities needed to live in today’s computer-oriented society. This technology, Herskowitz believes, offers the opportunity for children with autism to have an optimistic view of an independent future.

For more information on special-needs computer software or on Dimensions: Speech, Language and Learning Services, North, e-mail Ms. Herskowitz or visit the Dimension website.