PC program developed for autistic children

June 18, 2008

PC program developed for autistic children

Pretoria News 12 June 2008
(June 12 2008 at 05:47AM)

By Brian Bergstein

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 children around the web, but he couldn’t find anything satisfactory. So he had one built, named it the Zac Browser For Autistic Children in honour of his grandson, and is making it available to anyone for free.

LeSieur’s quest is a reminder that while 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 simplifies the experience of using a computer. It seals off most websites from view, to block violent, sexual or otherwise adult-themed material.

Instead it presents a hand-picked slate of choices from free, public websites, with an emphasis on educational games, music, videos and visually entertaining images.

Other programs for children already offer that "walled garden" approach to the web. But LeSieur’s browser essentially takes over the computer and reduces the controls available for children like Zackary, who find too many choices overwhelming.

The browser disables extraneous keyboard buttons like "Print Screen" and turns off the right button on the mouse. That eliminates commands children don’t need, and reduces the chance an autistic child will lose confidence after making a counterproductive click.

Children using the Zac Browser select activities by clicking on bigger-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 flashing distractions appear.

Autism generally affects a person’s ability to communicate, and Zackary doesn’t speak much. But his mother, Emmanuelle Villeneuve, reports that the boy can start the Zac Browser himself. He enjoys listening to music through the programme, and trying puzzles – things he always liked before but hadn’t been able to explore online.

Perhaps most tellingly, while he still acted aggressively when he watched the TV, she said, he didn’t try to harm the computer.

LeSieur didn’t create the browser by consulting with people who are considered experts in disorders on the autism spectrum.

Early reviews have been positive, though LeSieur plans to tweak the programme so parents can suggest new content to add. Several autism experts were pleased to hear of his work, and not surprised that he had not previously found anything suitable for Zackary.

One huge advantage is that the browser is free, while many such technologies cost upward of $5 000 (about R36 000) and work only on specialised devices.

# The Zac Browser can be found at www.zacbrowser.com

* This article was originally published on page 16 of The Pretoria News on June 12, 2008

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