Software helps students with autism

Using software that includes both on- and off-computer activities led to significant gains in the communication and social skills of students with autism, a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) study found.

The study, funded by the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), included 47 LAUSD children with autism–22 in the treatment group and 25 in the control group. It took place in four schools and consisted of four pre-school classes and four kindergarten or first-grade classes.

Students took part in daily computer sessions for 20 minutes and daily off-computer activities, also for 20 minutes, for a three-month period. Off-computer activities consisted of one-on-one or small-group activities such as relationship building or expressive language.

Students used TeachTown Basics, a software program targeting a student’s receptive skills (the ability to understand) and expressive skills (the ability to verbalize thoughts and speak clearly).

TeachTown was developed as a solution for learning challenges faced by children with autism. It works via animated images that appear on the computer monitor and teach children words and expressions. The program’s interactive design enables it to customize content to each individual student.

Over the three-month test period, students using TeachTown saw up to 200-percent increases in performance scores on the software. In addition, TeachTown students gained two to five months more developmental growth than the control-group students using the Brigance Assessment and with less one-on-one instruction.

From November 2008 through February 2009, teachers were asked to use the program for 15 to 20 minutes per session, with a total of 50 to 60 sessions. All four teachers averaged between 50 and 58 sessions. One teacher averaged 15 minutes of student use per session, a second averaged 18 minutes, and the third and fourth teachers both averaged nine minutes per session.

“At this point, at least 2,000 or more students could potentially benefit from TeachTown in our district,” said Debbie Moss, one of LAUSD’s two autism specialists. “The teachers are loving it now. They’re seeing progress in the children. Attention and focus have improved. [And] TeachTown ties into the pre-school curriculum and California standards, which is a big plus.”

The findings included a significant increase in language, auditory processing, academics, and social skills compared with those of students who were not introduced to the software. “Even for students who don’t necessarily show great progress, we saw gains in attention span and focus, things we couldn’t measure with data,” Moss said.

“I’m very leery of computer programs for children with autism,” she said, but added that she felt encouraged by TeachTown’s off-computer activities.

“We’re looking for rapid growth, but also generalization–is it just on the computer, or do we see it in their everyday functions? And we did see it across the board. I think a lot of it has to do with the development of the off-computer activities,” she said.

“The developmental progress far exceeds what would be expected. Some children had more than 30-month gains in specific learning areas like social understanding in just three months, with less than an hour a day of intervention, and a few children made so much progress that they have or are near to having age-appropriate skills,” said Christina Whalen, co-founder, president, and chief science officer for TeachTown.

When compared with the control group halfway through the study, students in the treatment group showed notably larger increases in receptive and expressive language; auditory memory, general concepts, and social skills for pre-school students; and matching and auditory memory for kindergarten and first-grade students.

Laura Ascione

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