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Puzzle Piece: The Laptop for Autistic Kids

Teaching a child with autism can be an exercise in frustration—for both teacher and child. But designers at the Boston office of the design firm Continuum have developed a teaching aid—still in the concept stage—that could go a long way toward solving some of the problems that currently plague the process.


Continuum is the design firm initially hired by Nicholas Negroponte to tackle the design for the One Laptop Per Child computer. While the final model was designed by San Francisco-based fuseproject, Continuum gained valuable expertise in learning tools during the project's development. Those skills proved useful in the design of Puzzle Piece, their Interactive Austistic Teaching Aid (shown here).

Autistic children have varying degrees of difficulty with social interaction and communication. Many are easily distracted from tasks.


Educators have found the best way to engage early learners is through a reward and consequence process called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). It goes something like this: the teacher asks the child a question. If he answers correctly, he earns a smiley face card. The teacher records the data, right or wrong. After five correct answers, the child gets a treat.


To be effective, this process has to be repeated for 20 to 40 hours a week. It's a daunting process, and one that hasn't really changed in years. Recognizing that health issues were increasingly amenable to design solutions, and that autism now affects 1 in 150 children, a team at Continuum set out to investigate what they could do to improve the process.


They began by observing teaching sessions with autistic youngsters at a suburban Boston school. "The teachers had to adapt what they were doing to a child's environment," says Delroy Dennisur, the lead designer on the team. "There were grown adults, sitting at children's tables, trying to record data in big binders."


Every time the teacher would turn away, and jot a response, she risked losing the child's attention. And juggling the unwieldy binders on a tiny desk, while keeping track of cue cards, and Goldfish snacks, was an impossible task. Additionally, although this process works best when it's augmented by parents, it was hard to keep them in the loop, regarding their child's day-to-day progress.


With Continuum's Puzzle Piece, a child is shown a picture card identified with a bar code. If he identifies it correctly, the teacher hits the "check" button to record that answer on the device, and a smiley face appears on the child's side. If it's incorrect, she hits the "X," which records the data. No smiley face appears.

When the session is complete, a USB dongle, with the child's results, is attached to his belt loop or backpack, assuring that the information gets home to his parents.


While the device does not yet exist, teachers at the test school were enthusiastic about its potential. "The next step is to try this with kids, and see how it works,: says Dennisur. "It's time to shine a light on this issue."