National Center for Technology Innovation

Teaching Children with Autism Through Technology

2008 NCTI Technology in the Works Award Winner — TeachTown

The number of children with autism in the U.S. school system has grown exponentially over the last decade. The growth of this population has far outpaced the number of trained clinicians available to help them, their educators, and their families. TeachTown Basics offers a way to deliver and coordinate therapeutic services in a fun, interactive interface. This case study of a 2008 NCTI Technology in the Works award shows how collaborative research based on solid relationships can sustain a challenging study in one of the nation’s largest and most diverse school districts, Los Angeles Unified.


Photo: Chris Whalen Photo: Jennifer Symon Photo: Debbie Moss

Dr. Chris Whalen
Co-Founder, President, and
Chief Science Officer, TeachTown

Dr. Jennifer Symon
Assistant Professor of Special
Education and Counseling,
California State University,
Los Angeles

Debbie Moss, M.A.
Autism Specialist,
Los Angeles Unified School District

Research for Children with Autism Benefits from Scientifically Based Research

TeachTown is a system incorporating therapeutic curriculum aimed at children with autism and other special populations developmentally aged 2-7. (See the 2007 NCTI Innovator Profile.) It is designed to build receptive language, cognitive and academic abilities. Additionally, it teaches social interaction skills such as comprehending facial expressions and eye gaze and developing friendship skills.

TeachTown derives from scientific principles embedded in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), and is delivered with interactive computer-based activities as well as parallel off-computer materials designed to help generalize concepts into real-world contexts. It is designed to allow non-clinicians, especially parents, to successfully support clinical practices. Questionnaires and interactivity permit the system to estimate the learner’s abilities and to adapt and deliver customized content over time.

Though TeachTown has enjoyed a growing market presence and proven success, Chris Whalen sought useful, formal validation in her push toward company profitability through scientifically-based research (SBR):

I’ve always known the program was strongly grounded in science, but we didn’t have a ‘real’ efficacy trial. We wanted to show how a program like TeachTown can be effective in the public school system — not just effective learning, but in terms of motivating children in the classroom.

The NCTI Technology In The Works award program afforded the opportunity for TeachTown, The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and California State University, Los Angeles (CSLA) to collaborate to further test this system’s ability to make a difference in the lives of children through disciplined data collection.

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Critical Friends as Researchers

Jennifer Symon, Debbie Moss, and Chris all live and work in Southern California, and share this passion for work with kids who experience autism. Jennifer and Chris attended graduate school together, and Debbie was one of the first teachers to see and recognize the potential benefits of the TeachTown system when it was released. Jenny explains that, “It was really helpful having a plan in advance — Chris had a vision.” Around that vision, exchanges of ideas gelled as they attended the same conferences and had other ongoing contacts over a period of years. Indeed, Chris, the project’s principle investigator, is leery of quickly formed collaborative enterprises. She explains,

I’ve attempted to do this kind of thing before with people I meet. They’re very excited and they seem ‘into it’, but I’ve not necessarily been able to depend on those people. Sometimes they would back out or they haven’t done what they promised they would do — it’s been a real problem.

Forming the thesis statements for this case study, then, Chris expresses confidence in people who are not just colleagues, but long-time critical friends who would never let her down:

The collaboration has been wonderful — but I knew it would be — that’s why I chose Jenny and Debbie in the first place. I knew it would be successful. I would advise others to make sure they have a pre-existing relationship with the people they are going to collaborate with. You know you can trust them and that they are good at their jobs — that piece is not something that you will need to figure out.

Clearly Defined Roles

Jenny adds that,

Having input from the beginning, clearly defined roles, and ongoing contact throughout — including in-person contact —  is critical, just like it is in the IEP process (the Individualized Education Program required for children receiving Special Education services that involves contact with parent, child, and teachers).

Jenny contributed a valuable connection with California State-LA, including coordinating the work of nine graduate students and teachers who have helped to process and analyze data. She has assisted with research design and will contribute to the dissemination of information and forthcoming publications.

Image of small girl at a computer

Debbie provided invaluable access to children in the large and complex Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for data that can be generalized to many settings, as well as garnering critical involvement from interested, cooperating teachers. Jenny adds that LAUSD’s “Autism program is very strong — just phenomenal,” another basis for the choice. Chris is both strategic and candid about the importance of that involvement, adding,

I wanted to have data from the LA Unified School District — I’ve been courting them for many years and eventually we would like to see TeachTown being used in the district. When we hopefully land that big sale, having this pre-existing relationship — and doing this research — is going to give parents and school board members confidence in what we’re doing. And this is the type of data that will allow us to apply for other grants to get new products made to reach other markets.

Triangulating Research Outcomes with Multiple Methods

Chris points out that data collection and analysis for the project are functionality integrated into the design of the system:

What TeachTown offers that nobody else really does is automatic data collection. Every response that the child makes is coded in the program. It is sent to us live and we can analyze it as we go, seeing how they are doing and (observing) very specific patterns. It also allows teachers to look at what’s working or not so that they can customize the curriculum to meet the needs of each child, and come up with the right off-computer activities. We want to do research at a high, experimental level, but it’s also a good research tool for the teachers. They are able to collect information and make data-based decisions.

In addition, a major part of Debbie’s role was coordinating the specific application of standardized performance assessment tools including the Brigance, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-III), and the Expressive Vocabulary Test (EVT). Some were administered by Debbie and others by collaborating teachers as tools that are already utilized in LAUSD. This offered natural consistency and the ability to compare the control and experimental groups with external measures. Chris especially emphasizes that, “The Brigance is a nice generalization measure because it’s looking at things in a different way (having a different theoretical foundation) than TeachTown does.”

The final measure has involved one of the team’s greatest interests, codifying kids’ responses to their interactions with TeachTown. This has involved continuous video-taping of the children in interaction with the software, as Chris explains, to “Check their attention to tasks and their language to see how they are talking, and finding out whether they are engaged and it’s reinforcing for students.” Analysis of the data involves ethnographic coding of children’s affective responses to find structured patterns of behavior that can be meaningfully categorized and reported.

Results Exceed Expectations

Image of small boy at a computer

A series of data tables derived from the standardized assessments employed show, as Chris simply states it, that “kids in the treatment group made very significant gains.” These occurred in broad areas like language and cognitive areas, as well as in specific skills like the identification of body parts. The results were profound enough that LAUSD continued the study beyond its initial horizon, and folded the former control groups into treatment with TeachTown.

Assessment of the children’s affective responses and behaviors, as well as feedback from parents, is ongoing through the summer, but it is clear, according to the researchers, that the program has been motivating and engaging, contributing to a positive and productive learning environment in the classroom. Some of the video has already been incorporated into marketing efforts to great effect, as Chris relates,

We’ve had a surprising business effect from it. We’ve been sharing this information with a lot of other school districts. Some of them had been saying, ‘That’s cool, but we’re not there yet’. The video clips that I show of the kids made the sale. People are just amazed at how happy they are. They’re obviously doing well because of the Brigance and other data — it impresses people. But (the kids) are so happy — that is the big selling point.

Research Challenges Business as Usual

Notably, ‘selling’ the idea of doing formal research was one of the biggest challenges Chris faced with colleagues within her own company, as there was reasonable concern about diluting energy and resources away from direct sales and marketing efforts. The results upheld Chris’ earlier assertion to them that hard data was, in fact, integral to marketing and success of even within a fledgling company: “Now, now when I say I’m going to do a research study I don’t have to fight for it. Everyone’s on board!”

Each of the collaborators mentioned technology related challenges. Chris reports, “I actually had more resources when I was a grad student. It’s been really difficult having to burn all the videos myself for the CSLA students to code.” Correspondingly, research assistants had to learn new technology skills as well as research systems, and overcome technology incompatibilities. Teachers in the schools initially had difficulty using the program with treatment kids for the suggested length of time, and some classrooms’ technology proved too ‘antiquated’. Debbie also sensitively adds, “The teachers were initially, shall we say, ‘hesitant’ about doing something new. It was an adjustment.”

Ultimately, all of this was transformed by the team into success. Jenny is emphatic about the profound benefit to her graduate and undergraduate research assistants:

They are going to conferences now, and some of them want to help with publications and presentations. We see master’s theses coming out of this work. It’s been very exciting and for them it’s been real life, not just coding. They work with teachers and are teachers, and they’re getting to see this new technology in the classroom. It’s been exciting from many angles for them.

Image of another small boy at a computer

Despite Chris’ prescience about the study’s outcomes, she didn’t realize that ultimately, “Having the teachers get so into it would be so reinforcing.” Debbie concurs, reporting:

The teachers are loving it now. They’re seeing progress in the children. Attention and focusing have improved, and the off-computer activities were very reinforcing for the teachers for practices they were already doing. The initial treatment group teachers are talking to the new teachers starting to use it — they like that it collects data for them. TeachTown ties into the pre-school curriculum and California standards, which is a big plus.

Final Advice from a Successful Venture

Each of the collaborators describes a sense of joy, accomplishment, and expanded knowledge as a result of their work together. They are already planning ways to disseminate their findings as well as new projects together. Jenny and Debbie credit Chris’ strong leadership and “willingness to take on so much with coordination and delineation of roles and being such an amazing researcher,” as fundamental to their success and the desire to continue collaborative work.

Debbie concludes with realistic cautions, reminding others that:

Part of the problem that we have with technology — it’s several steps — is making sure that our teachers are knowledgeable about what is out there. They need to be trained in how to use it. There’s also the financial aspect, technology can be wonderful, but how do we get it into our classroom and where is the money coming from? Then sustainability is an issue. Districts sometimes put out the finances to bring in programs and then they just kind of sit because there isn’t the ongoing follow through to make sure that it happens. We’re hoping to get around that with this program at least.

Jenny’s final advice gets to the core, as she offers,

One more piece of advice for others is to do something motivating for children who need these social interactions. It’s critical to make technology and learning motivating, fun, and meaningful.

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