If you were to walk into a class for autistic students, you would see almost as many adults as children and very little interaction between students. Group instruction would consist of a teacher talking while other adults reinforce, and often interpret, the instruction for their students. Any technology in the classroom would reflect the teaching methodology. There would be individual computer stations with touch screens and software that would duplicate discreet trial practices and individual communication devices for students.

Students with autism struggle with attention deficits, which are exacerbated by their lack of social interest and reciprocal relationships. Typically, autistic students do not engage in reciprocal play or social learning. They must be taught skills directly, and they generally will not learn them by observation. Teaching them involves a great deal of individual instruction.

At Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, New Hampshire, the Autism, Communication, and Technology (ACT) Project purchased interactive whiteboards in the spring of 2006 for five classrooms that served students with autism or neurological disorders. The students ranged in ages from 7 to 20.

Our main focus was on increasing group instruction in hopes of proving that students were capable of social learning. We also hypothesized that increased group instruction and social learning would help students develop communication skills and would improve their ability to generalize skills beyond the classroom. To accomplish these goals we had to change the accepted paradigm of education for autistic learners and overcome several hurdles.

Transforming the Teacher

Theresa, an experienced teacher of students with autism, had minimal experience using software with her students, and she was apprehensive about using this new tool. But her fears turned to enthusiasm almost immediately as she began experimenting with Writeboard and Kidspiration. When testing the interactive whiteboard, Theresa was surprised by how engaged her students were as they used Kidspiration to create a story using pictures. The graphics helped nonverbal students tell stories that they longed to relay.

Theresa decided that she wanted to develop her morning activity for the entire group of six children using the whiteboard software along with an interactive Web site. She started with an attendance activity that allowed students to circle their photos to indicate they were present. Using Starfall, students then took turns selecting and moving objects on a calendar and navigating the program. Next she used Starfall to introduce the sounds of letters. The morning activity wrapped up with a story from an electronic book from the Reading is Fundamental or the BBC CBeebies storybook sites. The students became so familiar with the stories and Web sites that they would sign for specific stories they liked. They began modeling positive social behaviors by raising their hands, taking turns using the interactive whiteboard, and engaging in instruction for about 45 minutes, compared to 15–19 minutes before the ACT project.

Theresa then added a daily weather lesson. Students observed the weather outside and then selected and moved objects into the Kidspiration five-day weather template.

Next she moved the students’ desksto the front of the room to extend group instruction in math and science. She used the whiteboard to access interactive sites to teach her daily math lesson. Theresa began creating original science lessons using whiteboard templates and graphics and realized that her instruction created an active learning environment for her students.

By the end of the year, the students had learned how to use the specific tools for the interactive whiteboard, how to use Kid Pix tools for storytelling through drawing, and how to navigate interactive Web sites.

Theresa said she believes the interactive whiteboard is “training the students’ attention.” In our observations, that was exactly what was happening.

By the second year, Theresa started using the whiteboard for interactive literacy and story activities in which students took turns selecting the software and tools. She noted that this type of activity would not have been possible before the interactive whiteboard. The students’ engagement was extended to 90 minutes in the morning, with additional afternoon activities in math, science, and social studies. Group instruction became the norm, and the students demonstrated positive classroom social behaviors and were able to express themselves using tools. Learning for these students was transformed!

Astonishing Results

Katie is a 12-year-old girl diagnosed with multiple disabilities and a primary diagnosis of autism. She has a history of aggression when confronted with nonpreferred activities, such as school, and she has not been successful in a classroom setting.

At the beginning of the project, Katie was able to sustain attention for only about five minutes without direct staff intervention. She was often disruptive, and her participation in class was based on whether she liked an activity or not. Her primary method for expressing her wants and needs was to throw a tantrum, growl, and be aggressive toward the staff.

Instructors used a hand-over-hand method to teach Katie how to touch the board to make sounds and animation. As the ACT Project progressed, she learned to generalize previously learned classroom skills, such as pointing to meaningful icons on the whiteboard. Katie quickly progressed to mimicking her peers and then to making unique, personalized decisions. Before this project, no one believed that Katie was capable of this level of social learning. By the end of the first year, Katie was waiting her turn to use the board without assistance from staff. She was taking social cues from her peers. Her ability to attend to lessons increased to 45 minutes. Staff expectations of Katie increased dramatically. More important, Katie knew that she could do more and rose to the occasion.

Perhaps most astonishing was Katie’s language development associated with lessons taught on the interactive whiteboards. In addition to her own individualized instruction, she watched her peers participate in language development lessons, and she was able to generalize what she observed. She generalized the icons used on the board to other picture symbols used in communication devices and picture schedules. Not only could she use them, but she saw the use in them and the use in communicating with other people. Her aggressive behaviors toward staff abated. Her verbal skills increased exponentially. Katie’s improvement, while astonishing, is only one example of many at Spaulding Youth Center that have resulted from the innovative use of interactive whiteboards.

Lessons Learned

Using the ACT Toolkit, teachers created an environment where autistic students could become engaged and active in their learning. We observed that teachers were increasingly motivated to use these tools as students were gaining new and often surprising skills each day. Above all, the teachers increased their expectations of what their students could achieve.

Resources

BBC CBeebies: www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/drilldown/stories/2/1/1/
Family Learning: familylearning.org.uk/counting_games.html
RIF Planet Read Aloud: www.rif.org/readingplanet/content/read_aloud_stories.mspx
Scholastic:teacher.scholastic.com/clifford1/flash/story_3.htm
Starfall: www.starfall.com

Kathleen McClaskey is president of EdTech Associates (www.edtech-associates.com ), a 26-year veteran in integrating technology in the classroom, a consultant and instructor for Universal Design for Learning, and a member-at-large of ISTE SETSIG.

Randy J. Welch, MA, CAGS, is the chief program officer for the Spaulding Youth Center, a residential treatment center in Tilton, New Hampshire, for children and youth with a wide range of neurological and clinical disorders.

Copyright © 2009, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 1.800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 1.541.302.3777 (Int’l), iste@iste.org, www.iste.org. All rights reserved.

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