Special Report
Special Education

Virtual Education Targets Rise of Autism

By Michelle R. Davis — August 22, 2011 7 min read
Jack Ursitti, 7, of Dover, Mass., has been diagnosed with autism and uses an iPad for leisure and for educational activities. "It’s a constant tool," says his mother, Judith Ursitti. "When we put an iPad in his hand, he immediately got it," she says.
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When bullying in her teenage daughter’s Maryland public school became too intense, Ruth Zanoni decided to try home-schooling, using online education as a supplement.

Ms. Zanoni’s daughter, now 14, has Asperger syndrome, often described as a high-functioning form of autism. She was academically advanced in some subjects, such as writing and literature, but was sometimes overwhelmed by sensory stimulus. And her lack of social skills made her a target for bullying.

At home in Howard County, Ms. Zanoni’s daughter did well pursuing math through videos from Khan Academy, a not-for-profit provider of online educational videos and activities, and working on her social skills using an online role-playing game, but she faltered taking French and then Italian online. Ms. Zanoni said she had to work hard to keep her daughter on task online and felt she needed additional face-to-face support. Ms. Zanoni eventually found a private school that specialized in working with students like her daughter.

“There’s a huge value to online education [for students with autism], but it depends on how it’s introduced and the nature of the person,” Ms. Zanoni said.

For some students with autism, online education can be the right fit, taking away the sensory overload and social stigma that can occur in a brick-and-mortar school and allowing them to pursue subjects they’re passionate about, above and beyond what they’d get in the classroom.

For students who aren’t as high-functioning, lacking language and motor skills, more-traditional online classes often aren’t an option. But many students are now using a growing number of apps on computers and particularly iPads to help improve such functions as social skills and communication. In addition, new technologies for early detection, speech therapy, and research into autism, a complex developmental brain disorder, are being developed.

Schools and those who provide intervention for such students are seeking out that technology and the tools it can offer as they’re seeing the number of students with autism rise. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there was a 1,700 percent increase in the number of students with autism in schools from the 1991-92 school year through the 2001-02 school year, compared with a 30 percent increase among all other disabilities. Currently, one in 110 U.S. children are diagnosed with autism by the time they are 8 years old, according to the New York City advocacy group Autism Speaks.

“A lot of this [new technology] is preliminary and promising, but it’s not a silver bullet,” said Matthew S. Goodwin, the director of clinical research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s not going to cure autism, but we’re on the precipice of a revolution.”

‘Sensory Issues’

At Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., which operates 47 online charter schools across the country, about 12 percent of the special education students it serves have an autism diagnosis, said Jenny Kendall, K12’s director of special programs. The majority of them are high-functioning, and for many of them, online education is a “perfect fit,” she said.

“They have sensory issues and [in a brick-and-mortar school] you’re going to add bells and crowds and hallway changes and the noise, which is so traumatic for a child who needs a calm, consistent routine,” Ms. Kendall said.

Online education allows such students to control their environment. Those students are also often “hyper-focused” in certain areas, Ms. Kendall noted, and may want to go above and beyond in that academic area, which online instruction allows them to do.

K12 does provide online methods of socialization, such as an internal social-networking site, that is monitored by adults to promote positive interaction. Students with autism may also be involved in teacher-moderated social-skills groups using Web-based conferencing, Ms. Kendall said. If additional face-to-face social intervention is needed, the school may contract with a local agency to provide it, she said.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

These can include autism, Asperger syndrome, and persuasive developmental disorder; they can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.

1 in 110
Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among children in the United States

4 to 5 times
How much more likely boys are than girls to have autism spectrum disorders

Increase in the number of students in schools who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders from the 1991-92 school year to the 2001-02 school year

SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. Department of Education

But Katharina I. Boser, a cognitive-development psychologist who is the co-chair, along with Mr. Goodwin, of the Innovative Technology for Autism Advisory Board for Autism Speaks, said the success of online education with such students depends on how severely a student is affected. In addition, many of the socialization issues that take place in a regular school environment may still be a problem online, she said.

For example, a student who is focused on a particular subject and doesn’t know how to discuss that topic without going on at length in a socially unacceptable way may do the same thing online. “Through written text, they’ll go on and on, but they won’t be able to culminate their ideas or provide proper responses,” Ms. Boser said.

But because communication can be more closely monitored online, a teacher may be able to guide the student more easily, Ms. Boser said.

Attention on Apps

For those who don’t have the skills needed to operate in a full-blown online classroom, the use of online applications, or apps, is becoming more popular. Those apps can, among many other uses, help students learn their addresses, phone numbers, and other basic information, use games to improve balance and coordination, aid communication, and even prepare for a trip to the dentist.

Judith Ursitti’s 7-year-old son Jack didn’t speak at all until about a year ago, after he got an iPad. Now, he’s using programs on his iPad to enhance his growing vocabulary, help him communicate, and play.

“It’s a constant tool,” said Ms. Ursitti. “When we put an iPad in his hand, he immediately got it.”

His progress wasn’t magical, though, and it came with support from Ms. Ursitti, teachers, and therapists.

Before receiving his iPad, Jack communicated using a flip-book he wore around his neck, which contained pictures he could point to showing what he wanted or needed.

“It was cumbersome and it was not the coolest thing in the world,” said Ms. Ursitti, who is also the director of state-government affairs for Autism Speaks.

When Jack got an iPad, he found he could easily scroll through pictures for the ones he wanted. At school, Jack uses the iPad to communicate, and it keeps a schedule of his therapies and activities.

Though Jack’s fine-motor skills aren’t sophisticated enough for him to type, he uses a $1.99 app to drag and drop words and letters, often showing Ms. Ursitti that he knows how to spell and use language in ways she was unaware of. “It’s another avenue into his mind and abilities that we didn’t have before,” she said.

Experts and parents say using apps and other online tools helps maintain the attention of students with autism.

Kyle D. Epps, a speech-language pathologist for Progressus Therapy, a Baltimore-based company that provides therapies to school districts, who works with students in the 680,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, said students with autism often seem more interested in therapies offered through technology than more traditional methods. With the use of technology, Mr. Epps said, he sees “a huge increase in production and keeping their attention.”

He’s used, for example, an “eye contact” app that displays a person’s face. A student with autism looks into the person’s eyes to see a number and report it so the therapist knows the student is looking in the right spot, allowing him or her to get comfortable with eye contact.

While “the technology is only as good as the therapist,” Mr. Epps said, it appears to be a “motivating tool.” He said some parents are now requesting iPads as part of their children’s individualized education programs, or IEPS, the federally mandated plans for serving students with disabilities.

In addition, some states are starting to look at those tools as important therapies. New York state is considering legislation that would require insurance companies to cover expenses related to “augmentative communication devices” for children and adults who have disabilities that hinder language skills.

‘Active Collaborators’

More apps are in the making.

In cooperation with Autism Speaks and the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, based in Framingham, Mass., the technology company Hewlett-Packard has launched a Hacking Autism initiative to develop new, free apps. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is seeking idea submissions, and experts will select some for a “hackathon” that brings together scientists and the community that supports children with autism to jump-start development.

Many new technological tools are already in development. Mr. Goodwin, the director of clinical research at the MIT Media Lab, is working on four different projects that could provide, for example, social cues to students with autism, track a student’s stress level, and help provide early diagnosis for children with autism.

A whole range of new technology is on the horizon to aid students with autism, Mr. Goodwin said, and those innovations are not being developed in a vacuum. Students with autism, their families, and those who work to improve the skills of such children are providing feedback to enhance those technological tools.

“They are active collaborators,” Mr. Goodwin said. “We’re augmenting already-available technologies and taking advantage of the interest that people have in them.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Virtual Education Targets Rise of Autism

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