As the director of education at the Oak Hill School, which serves kids with autism and related developmental differences, I know that supporting students with autism means helping them find ways to connect with the people and the world around them. Given the right tools, these students can tell their story, engage socially, and anticipate their schedule in an organized and meaningful way. Tech can support the good work being done by teachers, therapists, and parents to develop these essential skills.

Help kids tell their story.

How was your weekend? What did you do for Spring Break? How was that field trip to the zoo? All students want to tell stories about the interesting parts of their lives, but this can be nearly impossible when expressive language is limited. Pictures help get the message across when words are hard to come by, and Pictello is an app that helps kids organize pictures into stories. Kids can add language in the form of written words on the page -- like a storybook -- or through voice recording, like a visual audio book. They can share their books over a free Pictello server or as a PDF.

In our school, several students create Pictello stories throughout the week and then send them home on Friday. This is a powerful means of home-school communication, enabling the type of conversation that all parents and students need.

Help kids think socially.

Connecting with people as part of a group means understanding a complex set of rules and expectations. A student with autism might wonder, "When can I interrupt? Where should I be looking? Is this audience captivated by my theory of how Boba Fett may have survived the Sarlacc Pit, or am I merely holding them captive?" For the most part, we learn these rules through trial, error, and observation. But when these rules are missed, or misunderstood, as is often the case for people with autism, the consequence can be social isolation. The Social Express is a software package that teaches students social thinking skills through a series of interactive, animated lessons. Students watch as a group of characters navigate their social environment and consider the problems they encounter in light of specific social skills. People familiar with the work of Michele Garcia Winner and her Social Thinking curriculum will be familiar with the language used in The Social Express.

In our school, a student liked to talk about fishing. But not everyone wanted to listen. He had to learn that connecting with people means paying attention to their interests. In The Social Express, students generate "friendship files" that help them remember things that other people like. After using The Social Express, the student decided to interview people across the school to find out what their favorite snack was. He then surprised them on their birthday with their special treat, which was a smart way to make a social connection.

Help kids plan their day.

When a student struggles to understand language, the world can seem even more chaotic than it is. In order to feel organized, students need to be able to anticipate their schedule. Visual schedules are a critical support in the lives of many students on the autism spectrum. First-Then Visual Schedule is an app that enables parents and caregivers to illustrate a sequence of steps in a task, or activities in a day, in a personalized way that students understand. Pictures or symbols represent activities, and they are organized in a way that makes sense to kids who need a clear, linear breakdown.

In our school, every student uses a visual schedule in some form. One student carries an iPod with him everywhere and frequently references his schedule on First-Then. The ability to predict his day helps him anticipate transition and prepares him for the demands of each activity.

Some people might find it counterintuitive to use technology to help with social skills. The three tools I mentioned, along with thoughtful teacher and parent support, have really helped our students break the social code and stay organized in a way that will pay social dividends well into their future.  

Thank you for the photo, Becky Wetherington.

Matt P.

I'm a special education teacher with a particular interest and expertise in autism spectrum disorders. My current position, Director of Education at Oak HIll School, enables me to have close contact with students, teachers, parents, and other support providers while filling a leadership role on the administrative team. I'm in charge of hiring, retaining, and supervision of teaching staff and paraprofessionals. I work on the administrative team to guide program development towards achieving the mission of the school.

Prior to this position, I worked as an education consultant advising schools on programming and curriculum development, consulting with individual teachers to improve their practice, supporting families through the IEP process, and working individually with a wide variety of students in an educational therapy context.

My first classroom teaching position was as 5th and 6th grade teacher for students with special needs at Stanbridge Academy in San Mateo, California. I developed and delivered the full 5th and 6th grade curriculum in collaboration with co-teachers, speech pathologists, and other support personnel.