A Traverse City special education teacher has developed what he says is the world’s first website to help autistic children learn vital social skills through conversation simulation.
Scott Jongekrijg, who has worked with students with autism spectrum disorder for nearly a decade, officially launches autismunlocked.com on September 1. But a Facebook page he created to promote the coming site suggests he’s on to something; within weeks of starting up, the page has garnered more than 3,000 views, plus dozens of emails from parents of autistic children as far away as Australia.
The draw? According to Jongekrijg, autismunlocked.com will be the first website that teaches by directly communicating with its users, filling a gap that real-life school can’t offer autistic students: the creation of an authentic social situation – without the pressure of it being real.
“When I first thought of autismunlocked.com, I figured someone would have done it already,” he says. “When I found out it hadn’t been done I realized I really stumbled on to something.”
The website, which is intended to help users on the mid- to mild-end of autism spectrum disorder, allows kids to choose an animated friend with whom they can converse. The on-screen character will ask questions. Users will advance to higher levels by answering correctly, initially in a typed-format and later, Jongekrijg plans, through voice recognition software.
“Typing is pretty easily done for autistic children,” he says. “My students struggle with communication skills but really enjoy using computers. And the answers will vary from one word to full sentences. Autistic students need the practice and repetition of saying hello.”
In addition to a learning side, the website will also have a fun side where users can watch imbedded videos. Jongekrijg says a year's subscription to the site will be priced at $30. It only will be available for PC users initially, but he hopes to eventually develop it as an app for iPads too.
So the big question: Will his interactive, communication-based approach to online austim education actually work? Jongekrijg isn’t going to tally subscription buys alone as an indication of the site's success. He plans to collaborate with a colleague at Ferris State University to conduct an official study of his program’s effectiveness.
“We are going to keep adding to the website,” he says. “My goal is to be the biggest autism spectrum disorder resource out there.”
According to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder.
Local families with a connection to autism will have to wait until September to log on to autismunlocked.com, but they can take part in an event for autism awareness this month: June 23 and 24 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., families with individuals on the autism spectrum are invited to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Northport for free tours, food and drinks, family friendly activities, giveaways and access to many educational resources related to autism. For more info, click here or call 231-386-7195. www.facebook.com/michiganislistening.