New site helps autistic students with communication skills

As autism awareness continues to increase, there is an ever-growing number of informational websites about the condition. But a Traverse City special education teacher has come up with a different spin on using the Internet to support autistic students and their families.

The new website, Autism Unlocked, uses animated conversation simulation to actually teach autistic students to improve communication skills.

For a subscription price of $30 per year, autistic students can engage themselves in technological activities with 24 levels of play, a fun zone loaded with animated learning games, video clips, music and a drawing pad, and a "leveling system" for teachers and parents to have complete control over the users' experience.

"The whole idea is to help with basic conversation skills, which can be a difficulty for kids with autism," says Scott Jongekrijg, 33, who has been a Traverse City special education teacher for 10 years, and has worked with autistic students for the past eight years. "There are iPad apps out there that are aimed at autism, but they don't seem to get what it takes to help the kids; they seem to have been designed by people who don't get what autism is about. I have a working knowledge of what helps these kids."

The site was launched Sept. 1, and already more than 14,000 people have "liked" its Facebook page. It has been visited by people from more than 30 countries. A single user account to use the site is $30 annually, $130 for up to six students, and $300 for up to 25 students.

Autism Unlocked uses an animated conversation simulation called Talk to Learn, a fun and engaging game that teaches a variety of conversation skills. It progresses through 24 levels and users respond by typing answers to questions posed to them by an animated face.

"Talk to Learn was designed to help users of all levels," Jongekrijg said. "Non-verbal users and verbal users alike will benefit from Talk to Learn. They are able to learn in a safe and fun format."

After users complete levels of play they are "rewarded" with time in the fun zone of Autism Unlocked. The fun zone is full of activities like videos, music, animated games and a drawing pad. The fun zone is a favorite among users, according to some early feedback.

Nicole Miller, of Buckley, has an 8-year-old son, Scott, an autistic child who uses the site. She says he is enjoying the experience so far.

"He loves the reward feature," she says. "He accomplishes a goal, and there are some fun things for him to do. We are fairly new at this, but it is an activity where he can be independent, where I can monitor him but not have to hover over his shoulder the whole time he is using it."

Autism Unlocked can be tailored to fit each user, and the leveling system offers parents or teachers control over the rewards and demands on the student.

"We can individualize the program to fit Scott's specific needs," Miller says. "He is on it maybe one or two hours at a time, which is a pretty good chunk of learning time. It's much better than just zoning out in front of cartoons."

The ability to communicate is enhanced by the interactive features on the site, according to Jongekrijg and Miller. This is the main goal, and progress will be monitored as users continue to visit.

"Scott has trouble having meaningful conversations with his typical peers; it's not a natural thing for him," Miller says. "We're hoping the more time he spends on the site, the more it will help him be able to talk to the kids in his class."

Miller says the independent use is also good for her son. She can allow him to use the site on his own, and then she can come back later and monitor the progress he has made by checking what level he has achieved. The use of technology is a perfect method for autism treatment, says Jongekrijg.

"Kids love computers, they love any kind of technology, so why not mix something they love with something that is going to help them," he says. "I was a little surprised that something like this didn't already exist. Our method is new, and I think it has some really exciting possibilities."

Miller and Jongekrijg agree that it doesn't have to be major achievement that will make Autism Unlocked a success story.

"Any amount of solution, even one small solution, is a step in the right direction," Jongekrijg says.

"If Scott could just open up and be able to have some meaningful conversation with other kids, that would be great. If this website has a chance to help that, it's something worth trying," says Miller.

Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 45 years. You can reach Jeff at
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