A Las Vegas software developer has created a free web browser designed specifically for use by autistic children.
John LeSieur is in the software business, so he took particular interest when computers seemed mostly useless to his 6-year-old grandson, Zackary. The boy has autism, and the whirlwind of options presented by PCs so confounded him that he threw the mouse in frustration.
LeSieur tried to find online tools that could guide autistic kids around the web, but he couldn’t find anything satisfactory. So he had one built, named it the Zac Browser For Autistic Children in honor of his grandson, and is making it available to anyone free of charge.
LeSieur’s quest is a reminder that although the web has created important communication and educational opportunities for some people with cognitive impairments, computers can also introduce new headaches for families trying to navigate the contours of disability.
The Zac Browser greatly simplifies the experience of using a computer. It seals off most web sites from view, to block violent, sexual, or otherwise adult-themed material. Instead, it presents a hand-picked slate of choices from free, public web sites, with an emphasis on educational games, music, videos, and visually entertaining images, such as a virtual aquarium.
Other programs for children already offer that “walled garden” approach to the web. But LeSieur’s browser aims to go further: It essentially takes over the computer and reduces the controls available for children such as Zackary, who finds too many choices overwhelming.
For example, the Zac Browser disables extraneous keyboard buttons such as “Print Screen” and turns off the right button on the mouse. That eliminates commands most children don’t need anyway, and it reduces the chance an autistic child will lose confidence after making a counterproductive click.
Children using the Zac Browser select activities by clicking on larger-than-normal icons, like a soccer ball for games and a stack of books for “stories.” The Zac Browser also configures the view so no advertisements or other flashing distractions appear.
“We’re trying to avoid aggressive or very dark or complicated web sites, because it’s all about self-esteem,” LeSieur said. “If they’re not under control, they will get easily frustrated.”