Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Parents' Search for Inspiration to Reach Children with Autism

By Jacob Gutnicki

First Inspiration – First Child

As parents of 2 autistic children, my wife and I have set a few goals for our children. One goal is to assure that they both read proficiently. In trying to achieve this goal, it is incumbent upon us to have our children get excited about reading. With this in mind, we have used a number of methodologies, tactics, and materials to achieve this valiant goal.

In the beginning, we tried teaching our older son his letters. We used picture books that display the word along with pictures and have words sequenced in alphabetical order. It is believed that the picture to word association will strengthen their concepts of letters and words. We also used a variety of phonics-based software, which mimic this approach. Additionally, we employed the use of Leapfrog Books, which allowed him to touch the objects and/or words and hear the words read to him. These combined approaches were yielding limited successes. Naturally, we were eager to crack the code and figure out how to help our older son become more communicative.

One day, I was sitting with my son at the computer. He was introducing me to Thomas and his friends. You know, Gordon, Edward, Percy, Henry, Toby, Mavis, and so on. I started thinking about this little incident and said to myself, “How can he differentiate the subtle differences between Gordon, Thomas, and Edward. After all, these 3 engines are blue and are the same length.” In fact, the only unique differences between these characters were the expressions on their faceplate.

As I thought about this incident further, I realized 2 things.

1- If he could distinguish the subtle differences between Thomas, Gordon, and Edward, he was certainly capable of noting the different features in the ABC.

2- In teaching him the ABC or other content area, it will be extremely important that the medium used are high interest materials.

Epilogue… Approximately, 4 years have passed since the “Thomas incident.” Since this time, our son has mastered his ABC’s, reads books, writes sentences, and is extremely verbal. Through it all, the computer along with engaging applications and web sites has motivated him to read and write. When he installs software, he will attempt to read the directions and ask for help when he gets stuck. He has watched numerous video tutorials to learn how to use programs like Garage Band, iMovie, and other applications. When our son watches a video featuring Sponge Bob or other popular characters he will pause the program and attempt to read the signs being displayed. He will also ask me what keyboard shortcuts I employ to eject CDs or close programs. In short, through the use of technology, being literate has become relevant in his life. After all, you cannot find your favorite train model unless you know how to spell Santa Fe El Capitan.

As his educational journey continues, my wife and I reminisce about this and other early learning moments as it reminds us to not underestimate the importance of finding materials that get him excited about learning. This is why when he tells us about a software program he is using in his school; we always keep an open mind. After all, if Thomas the Tank Engine can teach our son his ABC’s, anything is possible.

First Inspiration – Second Child

Our second child is beginning his journey. Currently, his use of words has vastly improved over the past few months. However, he has many miles to go. With this in mind, we were hoping that lightning would strike twice and that he would also become more literate through technology. Over the past year, I have made various attempts to engage him through the use of technology. For the most part it has been a dismal failure. About two months ago, we started using the Wii with him. This seems to have caught his attention. Our little one often says, “bowling, bowling, bowling.” A few weeks later, I installed a touch screen on his computer hoping that would get him excited. At first, this tactic had limited success. My little one would play with the computer for 15 minutes and would then walk away to do something else. Naturally, I tried putting him on the computer a few more times and achieved similar results.

Then on the morning of February 7th, everything changed. He said, “computer, computer, computer, I want computer.” We rush down to the basement and my older boy started teaching the little one how to use Kid Pix.

Seven days later... The little one continues to ask for the computer. He loves to use his fingers and draw pictures on the touch screen. Occasionally, with a smirk on his face he will lift the mouse and press it against the touch screen. He has also begun to ask for Thomas and Elmo. More importantly, he watches their escapades with great interest, identifies objects they are teaching about, and laughs when the characters do something silly. In the end, the smile on the little one says it all. So… the journey begins again as little digital boy begins to enter the world of technology.

Resources to try with your children

Want to try Thomas the Tank Engine activities with your children? Visit the following web site;
Build an Engine
This activity is a great way to introduce your children to puzzles and basic problem solving in mathematics. When you visit this website you will notice a number of other activities. Many of them are fun, educational, and will certainly delight young children.

Want to spend the day with Thomas? Visit the following web site;
Day Out with Thomas -
If your child loves Thomas this will no doubt delight your child. In short, Thomas and crew take over a train station for the weekend and the family has an opportunity to ride Thomas the Tank Engine. There are many other activities at these events and your child will have a great time.


  1. nice story. inspiring to other parents who are tech shy.

  2. Thanks. I think it is more about listening to your children and finding out about what excites them and motivates them to learn. It could be software, art, music, or something else. We need to watch for these interests and seize the moment.