Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Too Good Not To Share

John LeSieur's six year old grandson has autism. And like many parents, grandparents and caregivers of such children, Mr. LeSieur felt that his grandson was more capable than he sometimes appeared to be. In fact, he felt that with the right tools, Zac could and would want to use the Internet. Being a software designer, he decided to design that tool.

Meet the Zac Browser!
The Zac Browser greatly simplifies the experience of using a computer. It seals off most Web sites from view, to block violent, sexual or otherwise adult-themed material. Instead it presents a hand-picked slate of choices from free, public Web sites, with an emphasis on educational games, music, videos and visually entertaining images, like a virtual aquarium.

Other programs for children already offer that "walled garden" approach to the Web. But LeSieur's browser aims to go further: It essentially takes over the computer and reduces the controls available for children like Zackary, who finds too many choices overwhelming.

For example, the Zac Browser disables extraneous keyboard buttons like "Print Screen" and turns off the right button on the mouse. That eliminates commands most children don't need anyway, and it reduces the chance an autistic child will lose confidence after making a counterproductive click.

Children using the Zac Browser select activities by clicking on bigger-than-normal icons, like a soccer ball for games and a stack of books for "stories." The Zac Browser also configures the view so no advertisements or other flashing distractions appear.

"We're trying to avoid aggressive or very dark or complicated Web sites, because it's all about self-esteem," LeSieur said from Las Vegas, where he lives. "If they're not under control, they will get easily frustrated."
The best part is that through the generosity of Mr. LeSieur, the Zac Browser can be downloaded or run directly from this site for free.

That's not to say that the Zac Browser will work for every autistic child. The autism spectrum is so wide that a particular pattern of abilities or impairments experienced by one autistic person might be reversed in another. However, the approach of limiting distractions and using the software as a confidence-boosting tool would certainly appear to be on the right track as many autistic children tend to do best with educational materials that make unnecessary stimuli fade from view.

I found it interesting that the Washington Post article noted that some autistic children enjoy Webkinz, where kids care for virtual pets. Not surprising to me, others find chat rooms and instant-messaging a lower-anxiety way of socializing than talking to someone in person.

One HUGE advantage is that the Zac browser is free, while many assertive technologies cost upward of $5,000 and work only on specialized devices. Ask any parent, put the label of "special needs" on anything and the cost astronomically sky rocket. So thanks Mr. LeSieur. Bravo Zulu.

But that we all had we had access to software designing grandparents!

H/T to Pipecleaner Dreams


Casdok said...

How very interesting!!

Balancing Act said...

What a great tool for ALL children. It is sometimes hard to protect them from some of the things that are out there.

BTW... you have been tagged.

leafless said...

This just goes to show that if we are willing to put our mind to something, we can do a lot of good.