Vera Bernard-Opitz

Digital Learning for Children with and without Autism

It seems like an eternity since I came to the Johannes-Anstalten in Mosbach, Germany with one of the first Macs and many learning programs from San Diego. I was surprised at the lack of enthusiasm by which my gift was met by teachers and educators.  "Now she even wants to put autistic people in front of a computer and make them even more autistic" was one of the unkind feedbacks.  In contrast, many students with ASD were fully engaged by the animations and the small-step learning success. For example, after the first exercises with a digital frog writing program, 8-year-old Johanna skipped from our communication center full of enthusiasm and announced in her residential group that she could now write. There, however, she met the realism of a caregiver who replied she should first prove it with paper and pencil.

 

A short time later, we were able to show with a project of the German Science Society (DFG) that various teaching-goals could be achieved through computer-programs with greater enthusiasm on the part of the students than they exhibited in interactions with therapists. Years later, this was also confirmed in our autism research center at the University of Singapore.  Here it became clear that sound production of non-speaking children visually presented on the computer resulted in increased sound frequency in comparison to play-interactions where sounds were modeled.  Simple social problem solving through computer use was also shown to be effective.

 

Now we have had a year of pandemic and the digital world is more or less slowly making its way into schools in Germany as well. Online teaching, digital learning and "homeschooling" are no longer foreign words, but in many places they are little or sub-optimally developed. Opinions about digital instruction are divided because internet connections often don't work, end devices aren't available, or parents and teachers are overwhelmed with the technology.  Some parents and students, however, are enthusiastic, while others want nothing more than for schools to stay open permanently.

 

Critics of homeschooling point to difficulties with digital media, inadequate interactions with teachers and classmates, and parental stress while working in a home office.  It is emphasized that children may miss learning opportunities and develop deficits in social behavior due to lack of interaction with other children.

 

While not all concerns can be addressed, the long-standing tradition of "homeschooling" in the United States may be helpful in putting some of the above concerns of German parents and teachers in perspective. By "home-schooling," however, something very different is meant than the pandemic-related need to home-school in Europe. Even years before the pandemic, more than 3% of children in the U.S. were home schooled.  In recent months, school dropouts and applications for homeschooling have risen rapidly.

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Since the 1970s, homeschooling has been established in the U.S. as instruction outside the school system, with mostly parents being teachers of their own children,  teaching them at home or in libraries, museums, or technical or craft workplaces. Often afternoons are spent with other home-schooled kids, engaging in sports, music, arts or even theater-play. Some of the curricula are based on Waldorf or Montessori education, but some are less structured, emphasizing experiential learning. Final exams are either administered by the school or children must pass general entrance tests such as the SAT and ACT. Homeschoolers have been shown to have better test scores on average, as well as better social behavior, being more confident and mature, and developing deeper friendships. Certainly, however, the question here is whether these results came about because of the home- schooling parents were of higher educational levels and had greater time availability.

 

While it was forbidden for parents to teach their children at home in Germany until the beginning of the pandemic, face-to-face instruction was often suspended in the last year, so that digital distance learning at home was the new order of the day.  According to the German school publishing-group Westermann, digital learning had already become increasingly popular since 2015, partly because more than 90% of students under 15 already had access to a smartphone, iPad or tablet.

 

Meanwhile, students in grades 5 to 10 can check their individual learning levels for a small monthly fee, in the main subjects and expand their academic knowledge in a variety of ways (explanatory and demo videos, exercises and tests) (https://www.kapiert.de). Thus, they can learn comma rules, essays, angle measurements, percentages, or even world religions on the computer or laptop with this or other providers.

The iXL program even covers Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade and offers math and social studies in addition to German and Spanish.

Instead of passive participation in class, however, online learning requires students to show initiative and interest, or else have motivating parents with time for homeschooling. Teachers are sometimes used as "learning guides" who are connected to their students through chat groups (Blume, Zeit online, 2020).

 

Advocates of homeschooling also include parents whose children are reluctant to go to school, for example, because of autistic problems, and who learn more effectively in the home environment, often with individualized attention from parents, students, or school assistants and increased use of apps and digitized learning programs. 

 

For young children and students with ASD or learning disabilities, the question arises as to what strategies are useful for teaching at home. How can school topics be supported or, first of all, can the prerequisites for these topics and digital learning be created?

 

It must be taken into account that the autism spectrum encompasses a wide range of abilities, talents, interests, deficits and learning barriers. This is where the vast array of digital learning programs and apps can provide a tremendous opportunity. Particularly because of the enthusiasm for computers, videos, and online games, digital learning can take on a new meaning for those affected by autism and provide relief for parents and teachers.

Strategies to learn from home as effectively as possible

Apps - an easy start

 

Twenty years ago, the communication app Prologue2Go burst into a huge market for people with communication problems and other impairments. Fifteen years later, a book of more than 200 apps for autism was published in English (Brady, 2015). This provides an overview of programs for language development such as "one-word" apps to complex vocabulary trainers, communication or dictation apps. "Go Talk" and "Metatalk" or "AutismEmotions" also became popular.

 

To initially get children with ASD used to a tablet or iPad, simple cause-and-effect programs should be used. One child may be interested in music, another may like to watch fans spinning, listen to animal voices, or things exploding - depending on the interest, a motivating app should be used here. There are learning platforms with thousands of programs that use videos and student teams to make learning vivid, hands-on, motivating, and social.

 

The same individual tailoring of apps to individual preferences applies at a next level. Sorting and matching programs can focus on learning colors, shapes, objects, people, letters, numbers, quantities, sizes, functions, and more. There are also numerous apps for reading, writing, language comprehension, pragmatics, and emotion recognition as well as recognition of social situations.