Grandfather creates web browser for autistic boy

John LeSieur is in the software business, so he took particular interest when computers seemed mostly useless to his six-year-old grandson, Zackary. The boy has autism, and the whirlwind of options presented by PCs so confounded him that he threw the mouse in frustration.

LeSieur tried to find online tools that could guide autistic children around the web, but he couldn’t find anything satisfactory. So he had one built, named it the “Zac Browser for Autistic Children” in honour of his grandson, and made it available to anyone for free.

LeSieur’s quest is a reminder that while the web has created important communication and educational opportunities for some people with cognitive impairments, computers can also introduce new headaches for families trying to navigate the contours of disability.

The Zac Browser greatly simplifies the experience of using a computer. It seals off most websites from view, to block violent, sexual or otherwise adult-themed material. Instead it presents a hand-picked slate of choices from free, public websites, 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 such as “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, such as 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 websites, because it’s all about self-esteem,” LeSieur says from Las Vegas, where he lives. “If they’re not under control, they will get easily frustrated.”

Autism generally affects a person’s ability to communicate, and Zackary doesn’t speak much. But his mother, Emmanuelle Villeneuve, reports that the boy can start the Zac Browser himself. He enjoys listening to music through the program and trying puzzles — things he always liked before but hadn’t been able to explore online, she says from her family’s home in suburban Montreal.

Perhaps most tellingly, while he still acts out aggressively against the TV, she says, he doesn’t try to harm the computer.

LeSieur didn’t create the browser by consulting with people who are considered experts in disorders on the autism spectrum. The small software company he runs, People CD, essentially designed the Zac Browser to meet Zackary’s needs, and figured that the approach would likely help other autistic children. Early reviews have been positive, though LeSieur plans to tweak the program so parents can suggest new content to add.

Several autism experts were pleased to hear of LeSieur’s work, and not surprised that he had not previously found anything suitable for Zackary.

After all, the autism spectrum is so wide that a particular pattern of abilities or impairments experienced by one autistic person might be reversed in another. In other words, creating software that would work for huge swathes of autistic children is a tall order.

Indeed, the Zac Browser might do nothing for another autistic child.

That said, however, LeSieur’s approach of limiting distractions and using the software as a confidence-boosting tool “is a very good idea”, says Dianne Zager, director of the Centre for Teaching and Research in Autism at Pace University. She says many autistic students tend to do best with educational materials that make unnecessary stimuli fade from view.

“Some parts of the web have so much extraneous material that it can be distracting, and for the nonverbal child, there might not be an ability to negotiate that information,” adds Stephen Sheinkopf, an autism researcher at Brown University.

This is not to say the web is necessarily barren for autistic children. James Ball, an autism-education consultant in New Jersey, says many children he works with enjoy Webkinz, where kids care for virtual pets. Others find chat rooms and instant messaging a lower-anxiety way of socialising than talking to someone in person, he says.

But the Zac Browser might turn out to be the rare tool that can be configured to strike a chord with a wide range of autistic students, says Chris Vacek, chief innovation officer at Heartspring, a special-education centre in Wichita, Kansas. Vacek is considering using the Zac Browser at Heartspring.

One huge advantage is that the browser is free, while many assistive technologies cost upward of $5 000 and work only on specialised devices. But Vacek, himself a parent of an autistic child, says the Zac Browser’s best credential is that it appears to pass what he calls Heartspring’s “acid test”: it has a high chance of increasing a child’s ability to do things independently.

“Let’s hear it for grassroots innovation,” Vacek says. — Sapa-AP

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