Tech Innovations that Help Autistic Kids Actively Participate in Class

Jordan, Porchya Bernier’s son, missed many classes and extracurricular activities during his junior school because of autism.

After a while, the school didn’t want him. He could not focus on his tasks because the class was loud and noisy.

Jordon is not the only one to face this situation in life. Many autistic children have difficulty processing stimuli from outside sources, such as lights, sights, and sounds.

And, according to a research done by Autism Speaks, sensory overload usually occurs when there are too many stimuli to process, which often happens inside a classroom, resulting in aggressive outbursts of emotions in children.

“When the classroom became busy, or there was too much going around him, he would yell, thrash around, cry, and make a mess of things. He’d simply just shut down from everyone around him,” says Bernier.

The school didn’t do much to help him!

Jordan’s parents had to work hard to help him re-integrate into school. Over the course of a year, his parents visited the school with him for an hour or two a day. Slowly but surely, at a more leisurely pace, Jordan began to become more comfortable inside his classroom. And within few months, he was able to return full-time to school to senior kindergarten.

Today, students with autism are allowed to take frequent breaks in a special room called the ‘sensory’ room. This quiet room is filled with mats and toys where children can rest and play. In this room, children are allowed to take a break until they become calm and relaxed again after a sensory overload inside the classroom.

While this solution has been successful at helping some students, other students, who require more resources to help them get the necessary rest they need, are often asked to stay back at home by the school.

Bernier says, “The school didn’t do much to help him.”

In 2014, People for Education conducted a survey, which revealed that almost 49% of school principals asked a parent of children with autism to keep their children back at home for at least some part of the day.

But this fall, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are planning to implement a new assistive technology, called “WebMoti” to help students with sensory overload to stay focused longer and actively participate in the classroom remotely.

However, more details are yet to be finalized.

But once it will be finalized, the school will be the first in Canada to use WebMoti, which was developed in partnership between Tactile Audio Displays Inc., Ryerson University, and WebChair (Dutch educational tech company).

For the testing, Ontario Centres for Excellence (OCE) will fund this revolutionary system, and over the next two years, up to 16 post-secondary and elementary TDSB students are expected to use it.

Quite a lot of unusual features crammed into one central place!

“The WebMoti technology contains quite a lot of features packed in one place so it will stay within the school so that we can figure out how to use the system the best way before delivering it to home, ensuring all the errors and bugs are fixed and removed.”

The WebMoti system has two components.| The WebChair help autistic kids and class roommate interact with each other in real time via computer screens. The student can zoom in and out a camera on the teacher, his or her classroom mates, or even move it around to view different areas of the classroom.

The student can also screen out any loud background noise and control audio volume levels and tune directly into what the teacher is teaching in the classroom through a microphone device attached on the teacher’s vest.

The Webchair first was tested on 1000 cancer patients in the Netherlands who could not go to school because of their illness. And later, in 2012, this assistive technology was tested on autistic students, after the founder and creator, Graham Smith, noticed how it helped reduce the anxiety of those cancer patients.

A young boy who never speak in the classroom before began to talk for the first time!

Smith says, “Ten more children with autism who were having difficulty participating in class showed heightened skills. One student who would not communicate inside the class suddenly started to talk when connected through the Webchair.”

After noticing this dramatic improvement, Smith decided to test his invention on kids with autistic spectrum disorder in Holland in 2012. The result was unbelievable: 30 students were able to attend school again. The Webchair is now scheduled to be deployed all over the Netherlands, and testing has already started in the U.K, Ireland, Canada, and Germany as part of WebMoti.

Heightening all of the senses.

Later, Smith partnered with Ryerson University to add the second component of the technology, the Emoti-Chair, which was initially developed for deaf children to allow them to feel sound (and music) through chair vibrations.

“By incorporating these two assistive learning technologies, we are trying to prove that autism can be reversed,” says Smith. “These technologies will help autistic kids boost all of their senses with sound, video, and touch. We believe these technologies can help them develop their sensorium so that they can screen out excess sensory information and not become overpowered by it.”

It’s all about absorbing without having to be inside the class and participate!

The ‘socioscheme’ theory, developed by a well-known autism expert, Martine Delfos, states that children with autism first improve cognitive skills and then develop emotional intelligence. He also joined the advisory board on WebMoti later after hearing about its success stories all around the Netherlands.

“The idea is to allow children to observe rather than having them to participate,” explains Delfos. “With Emoti-Chair, children with autism can easily see what and how) other students in the classrooms are doing. It’s all about the advancement of the senses.”

“And although the new technology such as WebMoti has been welcomed in the school, for it to work, teachers must be given adequate training to use it effectively in the classroom,” says Heather Zwicker, an educational assistant from Toronto, Ontario.

“The technology isn’t the problem. If everyone knows how to use it then it can be great, but that’s not always the case,” says Zwicker.

She’s not the only one to say this. Lisa Prasuhn agrees too. She’s from Alliston, Ontario, and she has a daughter, Caroline, a 17-year old autistic child who uses face-to-face software to interact with others. She has been a firm advocate of the better use of assistive technologies for students with autism. She has also recently authored a section on “A New Horizon.”

“I had to take her out of school because the school was not offering better support she needed,” shares Prasuhn. “The main problem is with the follow-up. Every year the staff at the school change a lot. More well-trained staffs are needed today who knows not only how to use the software but also has an in-depth knowledge about the system.”

More parents need to unite and raise their voice for it!

Bernier believes Jordan could have gained a lot from the WebMoti system and wishes more schools welcome the new concept of using innovative assistive technology that can aid students with special needs to participate actively in class in the future.

Bernier says, “More parents need to unite and raise their voice for the use of assistive technologies in school,” says Bernier.

“More schools need to incorporate these assistive technologies to aid students with special needs because we’ve already seen how new advanced technologies such as iPads and voice to text programs can dramatically allow students, such as Jordon, to act independently and excel in school. I only hope they give a chance to WebMoti.”

Annabelle Short
Annabelle Short is a mom, writer and seamstress. Annabelle works with several organizations to provide families with the best resources for raising a special needs child.
Annabelle Short

Annabelle Short

Annabelle Short is a mom, writer and seamstress. Annabelle works with several organizations to provide families with the best resources for raising a special needs child.

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