Saturday, May 14, 2011

Individualized Technology Plan Helps Student with Autism Achieve Learning Goals

October 3, 2010:
“Michael, what is 2 plus 0?”
“What is 2 plus 1?”
“1?” “2?”
“What is 1 plus 1?”

January 10, 2011:
“Michael, what is 7 plus 8?”
“5 plus 5?”
“9 plus 3?”

Michael is a third grade student with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder. At the beginning of the year, the extent of Michael’s math knowledge was filling out a number chart from 1 to 100 with 80% accuracy. He was not able to do simple addition, tell time, identify coins, put together puzzles, or identify shapes.
Michael’s parents were adamant that he attend a public school and be placed in a regular class and Michael enjoyed being with his classmates. However, Michael was not learning. He had a short attention span and the teacher covered new material very quickly. As Michael’s Dedicated Aide, I worked hard to keep him on track. I rarely had time to teach him fundamental skills.

Six weeks into the school year, Michael was still trying to learn addition, while the rest of the class was working on identifying quadrilaterals and solving word problems. I realized that if I did not take charge of Michael’s learning, he would continue to fall farther and farther behind. I knew he was capable of reaching his Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals; he just needed more individualized instruction and something to engage him in learning. I got permission from the Principal, his parents, and his teacher to pull him from the classroom for two hours every afternoon.

I brought my laptop and iPod Touch to school to see if technology would peak Michael’s interest in learning. I was amazed at how quickly Michael picked up the basics of using different technologies. Within minutes, Michael was using a mouse to navigate the computer and operating the touch screen on my iPod touch to find applications and play games.

Technology became the optimal learning tool for Michael. I used Michael’s IEP goals to create 3-4 smaller weekly goals. Then, I searched the Internet (and the FreeTech4Teachers blog!) to find online games, resources, and activities as well as iPod applications. I created a blended learning environment for Michael. He would spend 20-30 minutes on a computer game or iPod app, then I would give him a written quiz, and we would review his answers. Then, we would move on to the next skill set.

Here is an example of a typical 2-hour lesson plan:

Addition (0’s, 1’s, 2’s)
Time (Hours and Half Hours)
Motor Visual/Spatial Skills
Numbers to 1000
If we had time left over, I would let Michael play Angry Birds as a reward. He fell in love with this game and he worked extra hard every day just to play it for 5 minutes at the end of the learning block.

What Did Michael Learn?
Within two months, Michael achieved four out of five of his math IEP goals. He was able to add single digit numbers with 80% accuracy, tell time to the half hour, and write, count, and indentify numbers up to 1000 with 80% accuracy. He also solved 6 and 12-piece puzzles in less than 5 minutes and he was able to identify coins with 100% accuracy.

What Did I Learn?
I learned that it does not matter how far students are behind, if you engage them in learning and provide them with the right tools, they can achieve their academic goals. For Michael, technology was the ideal learning tool. The online games and iPod apps gave him instant feedback. He knew within seconds whether his answer was right or wrong. The games also provided Michael with a low-pressure learning atmosphere where he could try, fail, start over, and try again until he mastered the level or solved the problem. This kept him engaged and gave him the chance to succeed. While Michael was never able to put more than two physical puzzle pieces together without getting frustrated and giving up, he could solve a puzzle on the Let’s Tans iPod app in seconds. He would tap pieces to turn them, double-tap to flip them, and then slide them into the shape. His mind worked incredibly fast and Let’s Tans allowed him to try as many times as possible at a rapid pace. 

Technology changed the way that I taught. I learned how to mentor and guide rather than lecture. Instead of telling Michael how to solve a problem, I would let him try it on his own. When he couldn’t figure it out, I would teach him how to find the solution. Then he would try again. He would continue working until he needed my help again. Allowing Michael to control his learning pace and reducing the amount of new information he learned at one time helped Michael process the information better and retain it in his memory.

Finally, I realized that technology is only part of the learning experience. While technology engaged Michael in learning and provided him with feedback, I still guided and supported him. I spent time reviewing answers with him and helping him learn new material. I conducted ongoing assessments to determine how much time Michael should spend on each activity and whether he needed to learn additional skills. It was a combination of individualized instruction and new technologies that helped Michael achieve his learning goals.

My Advice to Teachers, Aides, and Educators
If you have students with disabilities or students that are below grade level in a certain subject, find technology tools that will help them achieve their academic goals and let them spend 20-30 minutes using those tools every day. Be available to answer questions, but wait until they come to you for help. Make sure to check in with these students when they finish to assess their progress toward their academic goals. You will be pleasantly surprised with how fast students learn to use new technology tools and how this opportunity will help the students become more self-sufficient and responsible learners. This will also allow the students to learn in a low-pressure, student-centered atmosphere.

Torrey Trust ( has a Masters of Arts in Educational Technology from San Diego State University. As the Technology Coordinator at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., Trust designed a database of technology tools (K-12 Tech Tools) categorized by subject, grade level, and standard to connect teachers with technology resources and make it easier for them to integrate technology into their lesson plans. This fall, she will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Education (Teaching and Learning) with a specialization in Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.