Friday, June 06, 2008

How the ZAC Browser Helps Autistic Kids

Every once in awhile you come across a story that just makes your jaw drop. The latest one I found is called "Grandfather builds Web browser for autistic boy." It's the story about how a software developer took matters into his own hands when his 6 year grandson had trouble using the Internet. Six year olds having trouble using the Internet? Hardly seems newsworthy until you know more.

You see, this particular six year old, Zackary, suffers from autism. As such, he has a hard time communicating and interacting and doesn't talk much. What Zackary does enjoy is playing games, listening to music and working puzzles. There are lots of these activities online, but the complexity of navigating the Internet and knowing what keys on the computer to use are a challenge to younger children. It's was even worse for Zackary who is easily overwhelmed by too many choices.

Autism is a group of related development disorders that can show up in the first few years of life. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) offers an autism fact sheet that tells more about the characteristics of autism and how it's treated. Autistic children typically "have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests."

You may have seen the ad on TV that says the chances of a child developing autism are one in something like 167. The Autism Society of America puts it at 1 in 150 births. What's more, it's the fastest growing development disability growing at a rate of 10 to 17% a year. I find it astonishing that a disorder this prevalent and threatening isn't the subject of constant news reports and public outcry demanding the crisis level of attention that Polio garnered when I was that age or that AIDS has more recently. But it doesn't, and that's why initiatives like Zackary's grandfather's can make such a difference.

What John LeSieur did was build a "walled garden" that provides limited and controlled access to the Internet. Only a few carefully selected public Web sites are accessible and they are mostly educational and fun sites, free of flashing ads and information overloads that would be too frustrating for an autistic child to deal with. Unneeded keyboard functions and even the right mouse button are disabled to reduce complexity.

The end product, called the ZAC Browser, is available free for anyone to download. You can even give it a try without installing it on your computer. I did just that. When the ZAC browser opens, a fish aquarium fills your screen and the cursor is a little submarine. You move the mouse to select what you want to do. Read a story, play a game, make some music. I'll have to admit I got hooked on a music program that lets you add instruments to "I've been working on the railroad." The popping bubbles are the best.

Anyway, it's worth your while to visit the ZAC Browser - Zone for Autistic Children if only to read their story and see how how well designed the site is. If you are a parent of an autistic child, there is a special section just for you. There's also a free newsletter and a forum where you can participate. All of this, created through simple personal initiative.

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