Tuesday, February 14, 2006

CD-ROM helps children with Autism Spectrum Disorder with social situations

CD-ROM helps children with autism learn to navigate social situations By SAMEH FAHMYStaff Writer
Fifteen-year-old Eleanor Wolfe of Knoxville excels in academics and as a choral singer but, like many of the estimated 500,000 American children with autism spectrum disorders, she struggles with social situations that most people take for granted.
The ninth-grader is practicing her social skills with the help of educational software co-created by Nashville speech pathologist Jennifer Jacobs. School Rules! is a two-volume CD-ROM set that helps children ages 8 to 18 with autism spectrum disorders learn about peer interaction at their own pace and in a controlled environment.

"Oftentimes (schools) just don't teach those skills to kids; we just expect them to pick them up as they go along," Jacobs says. "And if they don't master those skills they can be behind in all areas."
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of illnesses characterized by deficits in social skills, speech, language and communication. The spectrum includes autism and similar disorders such as Asperger Syndrome, which often results in above-normal intelligence but compromised social skills.
Eleanor's mom, Sylvia Wolfe, says her daughter's functional skills are generally high but that Eleanor has trouble with conversations. She'll discuss what's she's interested in at length — acoustics and cathedrals are her current interests — but doesn't show much interest in other subjects.
Sylvia Wolfe learned about the software at the Autism Society of America conference held in Nashville in July and says it was an instant hit with Eleanor.
Jacobs says that the strength of the software is that it gives children an opportunity to repeatedly view social interactions that they regularly encounter but may not know how to deal with.
One scene in School Rules!, for example, shows students chatting in a lunchroom. The child with autism anxiously slides along the lunchroom bench as the narrator points out, "The boy cannot sit still. We know that his classmates are uncomfortable because they stop talking and start staring at him."
Other scenes model appropriate behavior, followed by statements such as, "The boy accidentally bumps into his friend in line. He correctly apologizes and moves away."
The software has segments that allow children to watch two short movies and click on the one that shows the best behavior. Games in the software encourage children to view situations from the perspective of the people around them.
Jacobs has worked as a speech pathologist specializing in autism spectrum disorders at Cook Children's Hospital in Denton, Texas, and Children's Hospital of Atlanta. She and her sister, a speech pathologist in Virginia, came up with the concept for the software over a family dinner in 1999.
School Rules! is their latest release, and they've also released CDs aimed a younger children with autism. Results of a large, national study on the software are expected this spring, but a 2004 pilot study conducted in Virginia Public Schools found that the software increased socialization, daily living skills and communication in children with autism.
Sylvia Wolfe credits the software with motivating her daughter to try to navigate social situations on her own instead of relying exclusively on trusted adults.
"With the rules being demystified, I think Eleanor's attitude has changed to 'I have hope now; I'll be able to figure this out,' " Wolfe says. •