Reference Poster Session at the CEC Conference, April 20, 2001.
Evaluating a Computer-Based Instructional Environment for Autism
Susan Osborne, Chan Evans, and Dorothy Strickland
Children as young as eighteen months old may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). This umbrella term is used for any of five syndromes, including autism, in which a child exhibits varying degrees of deficits in the areas of verbal and nonverbal communications, social interaction, and behavior.
The objectives of this research were to (1) develop a computer-based instructional system to teach language acquisition to young children with PDD and other developmental delays; (2) determine whether children as young as three-years-old could be taught to use the mouse; (3) determine whether young children could learn new words taught with an interactive computer program; and (4) determine the effectiveness of using an animated Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) to teach generalization from the computer screen to the real world.
Participants and Setting
Students from three elementary school special education classrooms were selected to participate in this project. Each school is located within a countywide district of 94,000 students that includes eleven towns and one midsize metropolitan city. Special education teachers nominated a total of nineteen students as potential candidates for this program. Parental consent was obtained for all the children before each was given a computer-based pretest. Ten children were excluded when it was determined that they would not benefit from this type or level of instruction. Nine children between the ages of three and seven from four public special education classrooms were chosen to participate and were subdivided into two groups according to skill development. Five of the children were diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD); two with Developmental Delays (DD); and two with Preschool Delays Atypical (PDA). Four of them had developmentally appropriate verbal skills and five used very little verbal communication (one- or two-word responses with some echolalic utterances).
Equipment and Software
For general availability to the largest audience, the computer implementation was done for a low end PC using web standard JAVA Script. The lessons work on all versions of Netscape and Internet Explorer 4.0 and later and do not require any plug-in software, graphics hardware or special set-up by the users before playing. The exception is that the user may choose to reset his screen to display 600 by 800 pixels. Lessons also play on MAC systems, although at a slightly increased rate. All programs were coded with time lines and customized functions to incorporate specialized screen actions and responses. In-house software was designed to create play arrangements to teach effectively while avoiding a known pattern recognition by the students. Live images of people using the items or doing the actions were processed as minimum sized animated GIFs, with a standard sequence of three flowing images, to simulate live action within the computer-generated images.
We employed a multiple probe design across objects to be learned. This variation of the multiple baseline design permitted baseline phase for each participant and avoided requiring the children to repeatedly attempt a task for which they had not yet received instruction.
I. Using the Mouse
A real world test was given by displaying six objects, three knowns and three unknowns on a black poster board. The child was asked to "Show me .", alternating between knowns and the target object. Mastery in the real world was established at 66% accuracy. If this criterion was not met, we scheduled additional computer training sessions until the child again met the teaching phase criterion.
All nine children learned new words using the interactive computer software and they all transferred this knowledge from the computer to the real world. Also, the use of GIFs seemed to help establish the function of the target words. During the real world probe several children picked up the objects and verbalized or demonstrated their use (e.g., grater: "It's for cheese"; blender: "Milkshakes!"; spatula: "Flipping pancakes"). Some of the children learned to use the mouse for object selection, while others pointed to the screen to show recognition of target words.
III. Daily Living Skills: Set the Table
The objectives of this research were to (1) develop a computer-based instructional system to teach a daily living skill to children with PDD or autism; (2) determine whether children could learn how to set the table when taught with an interactive computer program; and (3) determine the effectiveness of using computer animation (Graphic Interchange Format - GIF) to teach generalization from the computer screen to the real world.
Participants and Setting
Five students from two public school cross-categorical special education classrooms were nominated by their teachers to participate in the project. They were between the ages of seven and eleven years old and diagnosed with either PDD or autism. All the students, four boys and one girl, were European Americans. Their receptive and expressive language skills were sufficient for comprehension and expression necessary for the tasks presented to them, and they were all familiar with computers and very competent with the mouse. They all were able to sustain attention to the task for at least ten minutes each session.
Teaching Set the Table