How Five Preschool Children with Autism Responded to Computers

by Patricia Hutinger and Robert Rippey

If adults provide interesting, interactive software, preschool children respond with attention, enthusiasm, and often gain computer skills quickly. Given conducive conditions that include adequate time and adults who can sit back and wait for children to respond, we find that children who exhibit autistic tendencies also respond positively. This paper reports on a year's progress of five boys and their interaction with computers. Labels vary, whether MSD (Multi Sensory Disorders), PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder), or Autism. Whatever the label, the five boys did not respond to the world with behaviors that parents and educators typically expect from preschoolers.

Although autism was not specifically selected for attention in the original study, the five children reported here called attention to themselves because of similar, distinctive improvements during seven months' exposure to and use of computers. Moreover, we have observed similar results in other preschool classroom sites where children with autistic tendencies interacted with computers.

Comprehensive case studies on each child, developed as we observed the children closely, were part of a larger study of a comprehensive system of technology. The Early Childhood Comprehensive Technology System, or ECCTS, was intended as a replication for several of Macomb Projects' models: a technology assessment model (TTAP: Technology Team Assessment Process); a service delivery model (ACTT: Activating Children Through Technology); a family and personnel training model (TIP: Technology Inservice Project and ACTT); and a transition model. Of particular interest are the activities in ACTT and personnel training.

Our colleagues were teachers, administrators, and technology support staff at the Just Kids Learning Center in Middle Island, Long Island, New York. The school contained a wealth of clinical and therapeutic personnel and facilities. The classrooms were integrated, having about two-thirds day care children and one-third children with special needs. Each classroom had both a special education and an early childhood teacher. The teachers were well trained and closely supervised.

During the first year of the study, 16 children with disabilities in five classrooms comprised the mixed study population. At the outset, we did not ask for a certain number of children with a particular disability. However, it was clear very early on that the computer had a remarkable taming effect on the children diagnosed as autistic. Two boys were in one of the larger classrooms having a 12 to 1 student/teacher ratio and three were in a smaller class, having a 6 to 1 student/teacher ratio. Two individual aides were assigned to each classroom to prevent the children from hurting themselves and others.

What Did We Do?
Program staff at Just Kids received initial and ongoing computer training from Macomb Projects staff at two to three month intervals. In addition, a technology support team at Just Kids was trained to provide daily support and new ideas for classroom teachers.

The ACTT Curriculum, which emphasizes independence, problem solving, and exploration, was implemented at Just Kids in the late fall of 1995. The computer center, available for use at all times, is viewed as one of the many centers in an early childhood classroom. Macintosh computers are used with color printers, TouchWindows, switches (when appropriate), and related adaptive input.

A wide variety of interactive software is associated with classroom themes and activities and is integrated into the curriculum. KidDesk is used to manage the computer desktop. Children work alone or in groups during free play and at other choice times. Favorite programs emerged such as Ruff¼s Bone, Harry and the Haunted House, and Just Grandma and Me.

What Did We Learn?
Our learning came from observing the children closely over an extended period of time. What seemed at first to be bizarre behavior turned out to be a means of communicating something unintelligible to us. When we interpreted their messages correctly and responded effectively, the children had their own ways of telling us, "By George, I think he's got it!"

Once the children recognized that computers and software were potential helping tools to meet their own individual needs and desires, positive behaviors emerged. In order to utilize the computer effectively, the children had to communicate and socialize. Prior to computer exposure, the boys were likely to scream, fall to the floor, resist adult assistance, throw books into pudding bowls during cooking activities, run around the room aimlessly, and refuse physical contact. That is only the beginning.

After the boys used a computer in their classes, we saw an entirely different cluster of positive behaviors. They socialized, shared, communicated, and learned at the computer. One child taught himself to read and spell words. Clearly, when the boys viewed the technology as an interesting activity and trusted the computer to respond consistently to their commands, then communication became essential to the child. This is perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the computer.

Some of the things we observed follow.
1. The five boys first became curious about and unafraid of computers.
2. They initially watched other children use the computers, from a distance.
3. Some boys liked a bit of privacy when they first tried on their own.
4. They first made the erroneous conclusion that the computer belonged to them and no one else but this is true of almost any preschool child.
5. The boys were likely to repeat interesting events in single frames or hot spots and add their own. The distinction between perseveration and engaged repetition constitutes a fine line. This behavior may annoy some teachers. However, with patience and encouragement, the child WILL move on. It may take a week or so. Don¼t push too hard.
6. The boys were quick to learn how to use the computer and to select appropriate software.
7. They ultimately learned to socialize and share.
8. They did not like circle time. Perhaps this provides a clue and a direction to improve the content of large group activities. Weather and the days of the week are hardly appropriate content for preschoolers, no matter how sacred such content may be in teacher education.
9. The boys talked to the computer, then they talked to people.
10. Over time, the boys needed less individual intervention and eventually got along without personal aides.
11. All five boys demonstrated increased attention span when they were using computer software alone or with other children.

Why did appropriate computer activities help these children make a bold step forward? We would suggest the following reasons.
1. A computer running appropriate software is consistent--more so than any parent or teacher could ever hope to be.
2. If everything is working and the software is appropriate for the particular child, the computer will deliver no unwanted surprises.
3. Software is interesting, responsive, interactive, and presented in more than one mode, appealing to varying interests and sensibilities.
4. The computer cannot harm the children. This may be the reason why they like to watch other children using it before they try it. They want to be sure that it is safe.
5. The child has complete control over the computer ( if his teachers allow it).
Control is something we all like, but it is especially liked by children with autistic tendencies because they seldom feel power.

Using computer activities requires that we do more than provide equipment or software. It must be individualized, incorporated into the total curriculum, and emphasize spontaneous interaction and independent functioning. Computers are not cure, but they can make a difference if used with wisdom and wit.

We are suggesting a possible experience for autistic children which may be worth trying. If you have similar experiences, please share your data with us. Personnel at Just Kids were sufficiently impressed, and this year, they have placed all 16 of the children diagnosed as autistic into four integrated classrooms. We are collecting additional data on the children and will have more to report a year from now. In the meantime, if you are persuaded by our argument and want to try our methods, you may obtain additional suggestions by writing to us at Macomb Projects (Room 27, Horrabin Hall, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois, 61455) or visiting our web site (

Note: The study was conducted by staff of The Early Childhood Comprehensive Technology System, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, PR# H180U50039. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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